Think Scout Finch if she'd been raised in an old-school tourist attraction instead of a tiny town. Or Dorothy if a tornado had dropped her in the Everglades instead of Oz. Or Alice if she had tumbled into a Wonderland populated by gators and ghosts and a man in a coat made of feathers. That will give you some idea of what to expect when you encounter 13-year-old Ava Bigtree in Swamplandia!
Ava is the main narrator of the marvelous first novel by Miami native Karen Russell, whose short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published in 2006. She was one of the writers included in the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" fiction series in 2010. (She turns 30 this year.)
Russell sets Swamplandia! in her native state and names the novel after the theme park where Ava and her family live (and serve as the entire staff). You can't call it a roadside attraction — accessible only by ferry, it's located on one of the sparsely inhabited Ten Thousand Islands that cluster like a cloud of mosquitoes off the coast west of the Everglades.
Swamplandia! has two main attractions. One is its pit filled with 98 alligators, all named Seth. As Ava's father, Chief Bigtree, says, "Tradition is important, kids . . . as promotional materials are expensive."
The other is Ava's mother, the brave and beautiful Hilola Bigtree, whose daring starlit high dive into the pit to swim across the pool through the great beasts always thrills tourists from the mainland.
Or used to. As Swamplandia! opens, the Bigtrees are wrestling with a grief fiercer than any giant reptile: Hilola has died at 36 — not in a gator's jaws but of ovarian cancer.
With its headliner gone, park attendance is drying up. The death spin is made worse by the opening on the mainland (right off the interstate!) of the lavishly advertised World of Darkness, where guests — a.k.a. Lost Souls — can chow down on Dante's Tamales or slide into the red-dyed pool in the belly of Leviathan.
As their business fails, the Bigtree family crumbles. They have always lived within a cozy fantasy — not just the theme park, but the family's gator-rasslin' "tribal" image, illustrated on billboards and in the park's little museum, and made up out of whole cloth, in true Florida reinvent-yourself fashion, by Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree.
Like many a loving family, they support each other with a web of kind lies and unspoken secrets. But with its center gone, that web shreds, and the surviving Bigtrees each descend into their own private hells.
First to go is Ava's older brother, Kiwi. At 17, he's sick of the isolation of being a homeschooled teen on a neighborless island, chafing at his father's mismanagement of Swamplandia! and sure of his own brilliance. His hell: Where else but the World of Darkness? On a quest to get rich and rescue his family and their theme park, he finds himself doing scut work for minimum wage and living in a cruddy dorm with a tribe of other teenagers — and getting an education he never expected.
The Chief goes next, on a vaguely described "business jaunt" to the mainland. That leaves Ava alone on the island with her 16-year-old sister, Osceola, whose interest in Ouija boards and spiritualism is taking an ominous turn.
Browsing through the Library Boat, a book-filled schooner run aground on an island near their home, Osceola — called Ossie — has discovered The Spiritist's Telegraph, a strange tome that offers, among other arcana, methods for summoning the dead. But she doesn't seek her mother; instead, she "dates" the spirits of young men: "You couldn't lose a ghost to death."
"During the day," Ava tells us, "it was easy to roll your eyes at Ossie's love spells. At night everything changed. Then something shifted in our house's atmosphere, and I felt outnumbered. Ghosts silked into our bedroom like cold water. Ossie sucked in her breath and twisted in the yellow sheets . . ."
Ava comforts herself with the companionship of a most unusual Seth whose hatching she happened to witness: "A tiny, fiery Seth. Her skull was the exact shape and shining hue of a large halved strawberry," her scales scarlet, her eyes "camelia-pink." A sensible child but one who recognizes portents and magic when she sees them, Ava keeps the red gator a secret.
Then Ossie announces her engagement to a certain Louis Thanksgiving, a young man who left behind a loveless childhood to find work on a crew dredging a canal across the Everglades. That work — and Louis' life — ended in 1936.
When Ossie, in turn, disappears into the Everglades to "marry" Louis, Ava is frantic to find her. The only available guide shows up at Swamplandia! the night Ossie departs: "a gypsy Bird Man. There are several such men who travel around Florida's parks and backwaters, following the seasonal migrations of various species of birds. These men are like avian pied pipers, or aerial fumigators. They call your problem birds out of the trees and send them spiraling over the sloughs; then they wait for them to alight on another person's property and repeat this service."
Clad in a coat of feathers, the Bird Man tells Ava he's been hired by the Chief to clear out a plague of buzzards, then shows her some of his whistles, ending with an extraordinary one, "a braided sound, a rainbow sound" that stops her breath. What bird is he calling, she asks. "You."
They head into the River of Grass bound for the Eye of the Needle, a tight channel between two massive shell mounds that the Bird Man says is a portal to the Underworld, Ossie's destination. Ever fearless, Ava will face her own unexpected demons.
Russell captures the implacable, inhuman beauty of the Everglades and Ava's perilous flight through it, leavening that increasingly nightmarish journey with chapters about Kiwi's hilarious sojourn in the fake World of Darkness.
It's a story rich in fantastic images and gorgeous language, anchored in the real world by its wonderfully human characters and its big, warm heart.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.