Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia! tells the story of the Bigtree family, a unique clan of Floridians who run an alligator amusement park in the Everglades. The family is made up of thirteen-year-old Ava, an apprentice alligator wrestler and the novel’s narrator, sixteen-year-old spiritualist Osceola (aka Ossie), seventeen-year-old bookworm Kiwi, and the father and proprietor of the Swamplandia! park, Chief Bigtree. The children’s mother Hilola has just died from cancer and her death leaves a personal and professional absence at the park. Hilola was responsible for the park’s most famous attraction, an event where she swam with alligators, and the park is struggling from the loss of its star as well as competition from a new theme park that opened nearby, The World of Darkness.
As the novel opens, the rush of tourists visiting Swamplandia! has slowed to barely a trickle and the Seths, as the alligators in Swamplandia! are known, loll in their pits with nothing to do and no one to entertain. Each member of the family copes in his her own strange way. Ossie becomes engrossed in a book called The Spiritualist’s Telegraph. Each night she disappears from the bedroom she shares with Ava and claims to go on dates with ghosts she contacts with an Ouija board. She also tries unsuccessfully to contact her mother. Kiwi meanwhile prepares to take the SAT and apply to college. He spends most of his days in a library boat, a mobile trove of books anchored to a nearby island. Unlike Ossie or Kiwi, Ava and Chief Bigtree are devoted to the future of the park. Secretly Ava contacts an alligator wrestling tournament once won by her mother, hoping to become the youngest participant and champion. The Chief comes up with a new business strategy he calls “Carnival Darwinism,” whereby he will recruit new investors for the park and modernize its attractions.
One morning Kiwi leaves Swamplandia! for the mainland. In a goodbye note, he expresses his dissatisfaction with the Chief’s management of the park and promises to find work on the mainland and send home money. Although Ossie and Ava are worried about how Kiwi will fare on his own, the Chief is unconcerned. Later in the summer the Chief decides to temporarily close down Swamplandia! and prepares for a business trip to mainland, where he plans to put his Carnival Darwinism strategy into action.
The novel picks up a few weeks later with Kiwi, who has taken a janitorial job at the rival World of Darkness theme park. Kiwi hates the work, but he thinks he can learn some secrets from the park that could be applied to Swamplandia! He befriends a coworker named Vijay, who chides Kiwi for being a nerd while helping him to adjust to the world of mainstream American teenagers. Kiwi hopes to make enough money at the World of Darkness to send some of it home, but between the rent he is paying to sleep in the park’s dormitory and the cost of his uniform and ID card, he is actually in debt to his employer.
For the rest of the book Russell alternates between chapters describing Kiwi’s life on the mainland and chapters describing the adventures of Ava and Ossie, left alone in Swamplandia! to fend for themselves. While Ava’s sections grow increasingly tense (see below), Kiwi’s sections describe a comic coming-of-age. After learning from Vijay that the highest paid employees at the World of Darkness are four pilots who fly aerial tours of the surrounding lands, Kiwi decides that he wants to go to flight school. Kiwi appeals to his boss, and he is promoted, but only to lifeguard in the World of Darkness’s wave pool. Frustrated with his progress, Kiwi starts attending night school at a community college, hoping to get his GED so he can apply to colleges. Kiwi finally makes enough money to send some of it home. He then saves a teenage girl from drowning in the wave pool and becomes a local hero and celebrity.
Kiwi, now a local media sensation, becomes an object of affection for Emily, the beautiful girl who he saved, but he still feels unsatisfied. He’s disappointed that the news stories about his rescue fail to mention that he’s the son of the owner of Swamplandia! and he worries about the rest of his family. Hoping to capitalize on the increased business caused by Kiwi’s fame, the manager at the World of Darkness decides to enroll Kiwi in flight lessons so he can become one of the park’s pilots. Kiwi starts taking lessons from Denny, an ex-army pilot in his sixties.
One night Kiwi and his friends from the World of Darkness visit a local casino called Pa-Hay-Okee Gaming. A low-grade beauty pageant is about to begin in a casino ballroom. Kiwi is surprised see his father, Chief Bigtree, as the show’s emcee. In the moment of seeing his father onstage, Kiwi realizes that the Chief has been living a sort of double life for some time. The “business trips” he took to the mainland once or twice a year were not for meeting investors, but for taking these odd jobs to supplement his income. When the Chief notices Kiwi, he starts walking across the casino floor towards him, but Kiwi and his friends...
(The entire section is 2094 words.)