It is fitting that even before the story unfolds in SWAMPLANDIA! the author sets the stage with a quote from THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS because the journey that Ava Bigtree takes in the swamps of Florida is just as strange and bizarre as anything Alice sees in Wonderland.
The novel is told mostly from the perspective of Ava Bigtree, the youngest of three siblings of the Bigtree clan, a family of alligator wrestlers that run an off-kilter tourist attraction called Swamplandia! The Bigtree clan (family) are a tightknit group. Besides Ava, there’s her older sister Osceola, her older brother Kiwi, her father the Chief, her Grandpa Sawtooth, and her mother Hilola. Except that when the story begins Hilola has passed away. Hilola was the star of Swamplandia! and Ava wants to grow up to be just like her. Hilola wrestles her cancer with the same fierce determination, beauty, and grace that she wrestles alligators but all of her skill, acumen, and grit are no match by the spores of the evil disease as it saps her liveliness and eventually kills her.
The novel is mostly Ava’s way of explaining what happened after her mother’s death and how each member of the clan wrestled with Hilola’s death and how the eventually subdued their grief and sorrow. The story is mostly Ava’s, but there is a touch of Faulkner in the novel as about a third of the novel is told from the perspective of her older brother Kiwi. After Hilola’s death, Grandpa Sawtooth goes senile and is placed on what is basically a nursing home boat. Osceola begins talking with “ghosts” and then Kiwi leaves and travels to the mainland. Later the Chief leaves his girls alone to their own devices (something they are accustomed to) as he travels to the mainland to try to gather money to save their home and Swamplandia! In his absence, Osceola falls in love with the ghost of a Depression era dredgeman and sets out for the Underworld to marry him. Ave knows she must be stopped, but alone she can’t do much. That’s when she meets the mysterious Bird Man who tells her no one can get to the Underworld without a guide, but that he knows the way and promises her that he will lead her there. Ava quickly agrees because she loves her sister so. However, her love for her sister, a longing for her father, and the deep burden of missing her mother blind Ava to the possibility of what the Bird Man really is.
There’s a lot of humor in SWAMPLANDIA! There were a few times I found myself laughing aloud at a particular scene or a line that was said. Yet, the overall tone of the book is one of sadness. Not only do the Bigtrees lose their matriarch, but they are on the verge of losing their business, their home, and their way of life. Their tightknit familial fellowship begins to fracture under the strain and that is the one thing none of them can afford to lose.
One of the things I was impressed about the novel was the writing. Russell has a gift for words. For example, “Curtains of Spanish moss caught at my hair like fisherman’s nets.” (p. 266) It’s such a simple statement, but it produces such a vivid image.
I enjoyed SWAMPLANDIA! However, I was a little disappointed by the ending. Ava and her siblings each go on different, yet incredible journeys and then the story just ends. There’s very little self-reflection and the conclusion feels rushed; there’s a lack of catharsis. Yet, the story is such a good one and told in such a beautiful way that despite the lackluster conclusion, it’s a great novel and I’m glad that I was able to visit Swamplandia! and wish I could have seen it in its glory days.