Following the tragic death of Ava’s mother, Hilola Bigtree – gator-wrestling extraordinaire, The Bigtree family’s amusement park Swamplandia finds itself burdened and drowning in massive amounts of debt. Each of the Bigtree family members, Chief (the dad) Kiwi (eldest son), Ossie (middle child) and Ava (youngest child) deal with the death and loss of both mother, wife and livelihood in their own ways. The Chief goes to mainland Florida to raise funds, Kiwi goes to mainland Florida to raise funds and go to school, although neither knows of each other’s whereabouts. Ossie and Ava remain alone on the island, but Ossie is convinced she can communicate with the dead, and is soon lost in a romance with the deceased Louis Thanksgiving and subsequently runs away from home, leaving Ava to keep up appearances and try to sort through the mess that is her home.
Overall, I liked the book, but I felt that the book was about 50-75 pages too long and could have been shortened in many areas. It was a quiet book, not much action, but plenty of thoughtful moments, scenes and dialogue. Russell is a very gifted writer, and I love that despite the dark overtones of the book, she managed to infuse some very realistic humor and wit into the characters. None of the kids were wise beyond their years (I hate it when authors do that). The kids were struggling to figure out their situation just as much as their dad trying to keep their heads afloat. Each character had to go on their trek to experience life away from the amusement park in order to grow, and learn that in the end, family is the most important asset.
The book is told through 2 perspectives, Ava in the first person, and Kiwi in the 3rd person. I’m not sure why the author chose to switch the POV, but the decision left Ava in a more favorable light because we were able to get inside her head and understand her character and decisions a little bit more. Although I still don’t understand why or how she was naive enough to trust the Bird Man so quickly upon meeting him. It bugged me when I first read it, and what happened between them later on only confirmed my resistance to that decision. Kiwi is an incredibly complex character and I really wish I could have gotten into his overly smart and erudite head. His book smarts clash strongly on the mainland, where people talk in slang and make crude jokes as a normal part of conversation. Kiwi is outcast a number of ways, despite his best efforts to blend in. Ossie felt like a throwaway character, although her storyline is the driving force of Ava’s storyline.
This is Russell’s first novel. She’s previously written short stories, one collection features a short story about Ava. Although I haven’t read it, I suspect that this short story was the inspiration for the novel Swamplandia! You can find this short story of Ava in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.