Girlhood Among the Gators: Swamplandia

Alligators! When you live in Florida, you either love them or hate them. 

In the novel Swamplandia by Karen Russell, alligators are an integral part of a devoted but very dysfunctional family. This is a gem of a coming-of-age story, with unforgettable characters who we get to know in the deepest way possible. 

The father is a champion alligator wrestler who likes to be called ‘Chief Bigtree’ even though nobody in the family is Native American. The mother is renowned for her ability to dive into a pool seething with gators. Three adolescents complete the family with the boy Kiwi already wrestling gators and young Ava learning her gator-handling skills. 

They all have chores caring for their ranch-load of alligators, even hatching the eggs in incubators. Tourists come from the mainland to their swampy island to see the exciting Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Show and meet the eccentric family that puts it on.

When their mother dies suddenly and their debt-ridden father leaves to take a job on the mainland, the three siblings are left alone and their lives begin to crumble. The oldest, Kiwi, goes to work for their competitor and twelve-year-old Ava struggles to keep the alligators fed and her teen sister Ossie sane. Eventually Ossie succumbs to the call of her fantasy world of Ouija-board spirits and has visions of a dead man whom she believes is her lover.

Madness and the lush sensual beauty of the Florida swampland unite to form a magical power that lures the two girls.  Ava and Ossie are alone with their budding sexuality, their fears, and their longing for affection. When Ava is most vulnerable, a wandering loner called ‘the Birdman’ enters their lives like a character from myth. 

He seems at times to be protective and caring…yet the shadow of danger looms as he and Ava set off in a boat to find Ossie, who has gone missing in the swampland. On their journey through a gorgeous and terrifying land of reclusive swamp-dwellers, Ava’s vulnerability and courage will touch your heart.


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