The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline—think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades—and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness.
Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.
My thoughts on Swamplandia!
Swamplandia! is a story about growing up. For the children there is magic in the way that they are different from the outside world (their closeness to the swamp and its reptiles, their “Bigtree” heritage, the show they put on), in the way their parents are bigger-than-life heroes, and even in their belief in ghosts.
Both Ava and Kiwi had grand dreams of saving Swamplandia!, kept alive by that magic of childhood—Kiwi wants to find a job on the mainland to pay down their debt; Ava wants to enter the national alligator wrestling contest, and when she finds it doesn’t exist, she nurtures her red Seth (alligator) in the hope that it will become the next attraction—she doesn’t even show it to anyone, like it’s a piece of magic that will evaporate under the glance of other eyes. Ossie turns to falling in love with spirits as an escape from the decline of Swamplandia!, and eventually elopes with the ghost of the Dredgeman. Ava, at first skeptical of Ossie’s magic, comes to believe in it, because there seems little else for her to believe in. (She was disdainful of Ossie’s escape, but she herself was “memorizing the speech bubbles of superheroes”—less dangerous, perhaps, but still a form of escape.) She believes in the magic of the Bird Man, too, believing that he can lead her into the Underworld to rescue Ossie. (Throughout Ava thinks about her childhood, the make-believe games she used to play, her unfailing belief in her mom. There are times when adulthood encroaches in, but they are all kept tenuously at bay.)
Growing up means a certain loss of magic: without Swamplandia! holding them together, maybe they aren’t that different from the mainlanders. What Kiwi earns from his jobs barely keeps him afloat. Kiwi finds out that the Chief’s “business trips” were actually working at a very unglamorous job at a mainland casino, to earn more money, shattering his conception of his father as one who is beholden to nobody.
The Bird Man betrays Ava and she realizes that his magic is all pretend. This is a powerful moment in the book, because as a reader I believed in the magic too. It all crashes down in a few pages: there is no “real” magic in the book. She runs away from him, losing her red Seth, and has to use her Bigtree skills to find her way in the swamp.
The Chief isn’t as much of a superhero as he led the children to believe (superhero being someone who’s transcended being human), though he is a hero because despite his flaws, he does the best he can for the family. When you grow up you realize there aren’t superheroes, but that there are heroes, and that’s somehow more inspiring, that normal humans can do amazing things. And Kiwi and Ava both are heroes too—they didn’t save Swamplandia! in the glamorous way they imagined, but they did what they could. Ava finds there are two kinds of courage, the exhilarating, magical courage of alligator-wrestling when the spotlight’s on you (which was relatively easy for her to develop given her training), and the courage that keeps you going when you’re alone and lost in the swamp, when you don’t know what’s ahead and you don’t have instructions. That kind of bravery is “like trying to light a candle on a rainy night, your hands cupped and your cheeks puffed and the whole wet world conspiring to snatch the flame away from you (316.20).” That kind of courage is much harder to develop, but she does, through her adventures.
Magic is many things in the story. The whole story is told so fluidly that although we find that “real” magic doesn’t exist, we still feel the magic flowing through the whole story. Somehow it’s transformed into a more adult form of magic, the magic of ordinary people. Magic is a way of escape, is partly in your head—and that’s not a bad thing. When wandering in the swamp, lost, with her “own thoughts were like bad food (293.27)”, Ava imagines she is the Dredgeman, the swamp worker whose story Ossie told, who was unendingly happy even though his coworkers were all sick of the muck and the mosquitoes, and that helps her keep going. Magic exists in love, too, when Ava is inspired by her mom to keep going even though she wasn’t around anymore. My fifth uncle says, the essential part of a ghost story is that it has an unexplainable part, and Swamplandia! certainly has this: Ava stumbles upon a woman in the swamp who seems like a combination of the mythical “Mama Weeds” and her own mother, and that encounter lent her “the yellow inside you that makes you want to live (310.22).” At the end, Ava tells her sister “I believe you (311.3),” with respect to her possessions, because what’s in our heads has a reality to it we can’t easily deny
The ending is beautiful. The fate of Swamplandia! isn’t solved in some magical deus ex machina, but at the end of their adventures, they become more of a family, and that will to keep going becomes natural.
Some other notes
Russell’s descriptions are amazing. First, she capture the texture of the swamp in words: its mosquito and peat-filled messiness and the kind of magical echolalia you might get from staring at it too long. (The part where Ava travels with the Bird Man has a lot of these descriptions. Actually this part is too long, though it does capture the texture of the swamp. The Dredgeman’s Revelation has the best description of the swamp—especially since the swamp is re-enchanted through his eyes; everyone else has tired of it except him.) Russell has done her research about the ecology and history of the swamp.
She’s very good at making story-comparisons: describing something by conjuring up an action or story, such as “A single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling (130.1).”
She gets into the minds of an alligator wrestler. For example, “What the tourists paid to watch, the Chief always said, was an unequal fight (15.13).”
One thing I didn’t like was that Kiwi’s story is lacking in emotional and plot complexity compared to Ava’s story. How could anyone like the World of Darkness? It’s humorous but feels a lot less believable than the rest of the story. The depiction of Kiwi’s coworkers is rather one-dimensional (and lewd). I feel much less in Kiwi’s mind than in Ava’s mind—Ava’s part is in first person and Kiwi’s part is in third person—but more because I see a correspondence between Ava’s experience/memories in Swamplandia as a alligator wrestler-in-training and as part of her family, and her thoughts during her adventures; I see less of a correspondence between Kiwi’s own past and his thoughts during his adventures. He is more detached from Swamplandia, but he has his own life with his books that isn’t really shown; he is too stereotypically nerdy; for example, his Field Notes seem important to him but are not expanded on in the story. (Kiwi’s part is my main reason for giving the book 4/5 rather than 5/5 stars.)