Swamplandia Summary

Karen Russell

Swamplandia

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Swamplandia Summary

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Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia! began as a short story titled “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” in the 2006 summer issue of Zoetrope: All-Story. It tells the story of the Bigtree family; alligator wrestles who live on an island near Florida and run the theme park, Swamplandia! Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree narrates most of the story, about the  disasters her family faces and the ways people can grow apart and back together. The sections of the book focusing on Ava’s older brother Kiwi are narrated in the third person.

Sawtooth Bigtree, the family patriarch, suffers from dementia and is in a nursing home. Adding to the stress faced by members of the Bigtree family is the death of Hiola Bigtree, Sawtooth’s daughter, from ovarian cancer. Her husband and father of their three children, Chief Bigtree, ignores any problems around him and focuses on his work instead. He concentrates solely on finding a way to make the family’s amusement park, Swamplandia!, profitable as they attempt to attract tourists with features such as the Gator Pit. The park faces serious competition from The World of Darkness, a newly opened amusement park on Florida’s mainland. Kiwi believes selling the family park is the best solution, but the chief believes in it and in the family’s heritage. Osceola is the family’s middle child who becomes obsessed with ghosts after finding a book called The Spiritist’s Telegraph. She also worries about the family’s financial situation.

Osceola acquires a boyfriend of sorts when she encounters the ghost of a seventeen-year-old dredger named Louis. Dredgers work on boats used to mine minerals from a body of water, which are known as dredges. The one Louis worked on mysteriously disappeared not far from the  island the Bigtrees live on. Osceola uses a Ouija board to try to communicate with crew members and discovers that Louis Thanksgiving had run away from an abusive family in the Midwest. After spending some time with him, Osceola agrees that they will elope. Ava finds a note from Osceola explaining this plan. At the time, their father, the chief, is on the mainland, meeting with investors about the amusement park. Kiwi is away as well, as he has taken a job working as a janitor at The World of Darkness on the mainland in order to help with the family’s bills. The only person on the island with Ava is a character known as the Bird Man. The Bird Man arrived on the island without the family’s knowledge to care for buzzards there. This mystery man claims to have magical powers that he could use to help Ava find her sister.

The Bird Man convinces Ava that Osceola and Louis have eloped to the underworld, and she agrees to go there with him. As their journey progresses, Ava becomes aware of a change in the Bird Man. He is no longer as friendly as he had been, and starts to exhibit strange behavior. When they arrive on an island that Ava assumed was the underworld, the Bird Man rapes her. She runs away from him but realizes that she has no idea where she is and that her situation might become even worse because of that. In a fortuitous coincidence, Kiwi has been taking flying lessons at the amusement park he is working at on the mainland. He is on a test flight along with an instructor when he sees Osceola below, waving for help. Meanwhile, a group of hunters hear Ava’s screams and contact officials. A park ranger finds Ava and she is reunited with the rest of the family. In the end, they all realize that the best course of action will be to leave their island and establish a life on the mainland.

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was lauded by The New York Times Book Review as a solid first novel: “Ava is a highly appealing narrator who has many talents beyond swimming with gators or taping their jaws shut. If protagonists (especially of first novels) typically bewail the mundanity of their small towns, the exotic is normal to Ava. Her first-person narration is not a transcription of a 13-year-old voice, but an evocation, in adult language, of a barely adolescent mind-set. This allows for a dazzling level of linguistic invention… The plot of Swamplandia! is nothing special — dysfunctional family pull apart, then pull together — but the execution is. This family, wrestling with their desires and demons, will neither succumb nor triumph, but survive in their scarred way, and will lodge in the memories of anyone lucky enough to read Swamplandia! If the gothic whimsy of this novel is sometimes too self-conscious, the pleasures it offers are unforced. As the wooden sign at the entrance to the Gator Pit says, ‘You Watchers in the First Four Rows Guaranteed to Get Wet!’”