Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree has lived her entire life at Swamplandia!, her family’s island home and gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. But when illness fells Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, the family is plunged into chaos and Ava sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all.
Ms. Russell is one in a million. The proof is in Swamplandia!, a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks, rampaging melaleuca trees, a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving. Sound appealing? No, it does not. Unless Ms. Russell had you at ‘alligator wrestlers’ — not likely — you may well recoil at every noxiously fanciful item on that list...But wait. Ms. Russell knows how to use bizarre ingredients to absolutely irresistible effect … Fizzy as these ingredients may be, Swamplandia! also manages to be a suspenseful, deeply haunted book … For all its gorgeously eerie omens Swamplandia! stays rooted in the Bigtree family’s emotional reality.
With a mixture of comedy, terror and nostalgia, [Russell] conjures up a run-down theme park 30 miles off the Gulf Coast of Florida, a tourist trap run by a family of phony Indians named the Bigtrees … On this almost make-believe island, the Bigtree children home-school themselves with moldy books from a Library Boat abandoned in the 1950s. They speak with preternaturally mature knowledge without realizing how little they know of the real world. One wrong move and the novel's poignancy could slip into cuteness … She's charted out a strange estuary where heartbreak and comedy mingle to produce a fictional environment that seems semi-magical but emotionally true.
Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride: Russell has style in spades … If Russell’s style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life’s nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned Swamplandia! into a credible world. 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 … If the gothic whimsy of this novel is sometimes too self-conscious, the pleasures it offers are unforced.