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.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
Swamplandia (2011), by Karen Russell, is a coming-of-age tale imbued with mythical as well as mystical images. The story is set in an alligator-infested Everglades swamp, where four members of the motherless Bigtree family attempt to eke out a living through a failing and shabby tourist attraction. It is up to the protagonist, Ava, who is the youngest member at age 13, to save the family. Donna Seaman, a reviewer for the Booklist, refers to Russell's first novel as "lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted." The New York Times listed Swamplandia (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) as one of the ten best novels of 2011.
The members of the Bigtree family include the patriarch, Sawtooth, who is an old man confined to a nursing home as the story opens. His son, referred to as the Chief, now runs the family business, which is the broken-down alligator-wrestling amusement park named Swamplandia. The Chief's wife, Hilola, was the star performer, but she has recently died of ovarian cancer, leaving her three children—Kiwi, a seventeen-year-old boy; Osceola (Ossie), the middle sibling; and Ava—to cope with their father and ultimately to fend for themselves.
Chapter 1 opens with a description of Ava's mother's dangerous but tantalizing act, which involves diving into a pool filled with alligators. As Hilola stands at the end of the diving board with a spotlight focused on her, Ava states that at that moment, it is as if Hilola becomes someone other than her mother. Hilola is a star. All the tourists in the stands of Swamplandia have come for this very moment—to see Hilola, the "Swamp Centaur," perform. After making her dive, it takes Hilola four minutes to swim across the water to safety. During those four minutes, everyone in the stands, including Hiola's children, hold their breaths.
Now Hilola is gone. What is left, besides the ninety-eight alligators (all named Seth) in the Bigtrees'...
(The entire section is 585 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Springtime storms hit Swamplandia, blowing in from the Gulf, tearing up the vegetation and flooding the already swampy land. Lightning strikes set some of the surrounding small islands on fire. However, nothing else changes in the Bigtree family's life. Tourists continue to avoid Swamplandia, and as Ava puts it, her mother remains dead.
Sometimes the only visitors the Bigtree family receives is Gus Waddell, the captain of the ferryboat that carries supplies from the mainland. Ava recalls that when her mother was still alive, the arrival of the ferryboat was the cause for all the family members to spring into action, manning their stations, at which they greeted the mobs of tourists. During those times, they were so busy that Ava's day would go by without having seen her brother and sister. Now that no tourists are coming, Ava finds that the only people she has to talk to are her siblings, and she is with them all day long.
With so much free time, Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi spend most of their day on the library boat, an old wreck of a yacht once owned by a reclusive but wealthy man who stocked it with books, which he liked to share. That man has since died, but the boat and the books remain available. Usually only Kiwi and Ava went to the library boat to borrow books. Recently, though, Ossie has taken an interest in reading, at least in reading one particular book that she has borrowed. The title of this book is The Spiritist's Telegraph, which Ossie finally allows Ava to look through. The book is very old and is written in a very small font. There are strange illustrations inside, such as a picture of a woman who has no pupils in her eyes. The book is as thick as the Bible, Ava notices. Ossie tells Ava that The Spiritist's Telegraph is an ancient book of witches' spells. In the text, Ava and Ossie read of a special place called the "Underworld." This place, as Ava interprets it, is not like what she has read about Hell....
(The entire section is 599 words.)
Chapters 3-4 Summary
Having grown tired of not receiving any responses on the Ouija board from their dead mother, Ossie suggests that she and Ava attempt to make contact with dead men. Ossie says that she wants a boyfriend. Then, after attempting this for a while, Ossie prohibits Ava from taking part. Ossie tells Ava that she is too young to understand what is going on and refuses to allow Ava play with the Ouija board any more. So Ava has to watch her sister from a distance. When she does this, Ava notices that when Ossie does engage with the Ouija board, she appears to go into a trance; her pupils dilate, and when Ava calls her, Ossie does not respond. Ava even senses a change in the environment in the house around Ossie, especially at night. To Ava,...
(The entire section is 522 words.)
Chapters 5-6 Summary
Returning home from a visit to the mainland to ask for money from Grandfather Sawtooth, the Bigtree family walks toward the house. Ava is next to her brother, and when she grabs his arm, she realizes how thin he is getting. She wraps her fingers around her own arm and worries that the poor diet they have been fed since their mother's death is making them all unhealthy. In contrast to Kiwi's arms, though, Ava feels she has more muscle. She has continued her alligator-wrestling classes with her father, whereas Kiwi has refused to do so.
Before they reach the house, Ava pulls Kiwi toward the Swamplandia makeshift museum. Once inside, she takes her brother to the display that is focused on the Bigtree family history. There...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
Chapters 7-8 Summary
In Chapter 7, Ava and her older sister Ossie are living at home by themselves. Their brother Kiwi has gone to the mainland to work. Their father is on a trip, hoping to find investors for a new project he would like to start, one that will improve the family's tourist attraction.
With their mother dead, their brother living on the mainland, and their father traveling, Ava and Ossie are on their own. The sisters spend most of their time attempting to rid their land of a noxious weed-tree once planted there by some ambitious farmers to soak up all the swamp water so the land could be cultivated. Since then the trees have overtaken the landscape and are threatening to smother all the other vegetation. Ossie cuts down the...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
In Chapter 9, Ossie tells Ava the story of Louis, the young man who died in the dredger boat that the sisters recently discovered. Louis is also the so-called ghost that Ossie had made contact with through her Ouija board.
Louis was born to an unmarried woman who died while giving birth. Louis almost died too. He was born blue because he was not breathing. The doctor who delivered the baby brought Louis back to life and then gave the baby to an agency that dealt with orphans.
Louis was taken to the Midwest, where he was adopted by a cold-hearted, uncaring man who put Louis to work at an early age on his farm and kept Louis working until Louis gained the courage to run away at age seventeen.
(The entire section is 549 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The focus of this chapter is Kiwi as he attempts to find a job that will pay him more money. He realizes that he will never be able to help his family financially on the salary he is currently earning. His plan is to help his father get out of the massive debt he has incurred so that the family will not lose Swamplandia.
Kiwi begins his search for a better paying job by discussing his problem with Vijay, a coworker who has taken Kiwi under his care, trying to make Kiwi less naive about city life. Although Vijay is not an ideal mentor (he uses drugs and cheats on his wife), he does help Kiwi think through his problems and possible solutions.
At first Kiwi thinks he might make a better salary working in what...
(The entire section is 490 words.)
Chapters 11-12 Summary
The scene switches back to Swamplandia, where Ava is talking to "Bird Man," a so-called gypsy who dresses in feathers, makes authentic bird calls to a wide variety of different types of swamp birds, and is used by inhabitants of the area to lure away birds of prey such as the vultures that have been plaguing Swamplandia.
After befriending Bird Man, sharing her food with him, and demonstrating her skills with the alligators of Swamplandia, Ava decides to trust the strange man and tells him about Ossie. She shares the details of Ossie's connection with the ghost, Lois, and confesses that Ossie has run away with this ghost to the underworld, where they will be married. Ava then asks for advice as to what she should do to...
(The entire section is 472 words.)
Chapters 13-14 Summary
Ava and Bird Man continue their journey by boat as they search for Ossie. After a full day on the water, they come to a town called Stiltsville. Houses atop long poles sit on the edge of the swampy bay. At one time, according to a story that Ava's father once told her, all these houses were inhabited. However, all the residents were forced to take refuge on the mainland after the park service officials deemed it unsafe for them to live as they were in the rickety, wood-slated houses delicately poised over the water.
Bird Man decides that Stiltsville is a good place for him and Ava to sleep and pulls the boat ashore. As they come closer, Ava sees a cougar jump from one house to the next. So when Bird Man tells her to...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
Ava and Bird Man spend another day on the water in the swamps, steering through narrow canals in the blistering heat. Ava is tired from the sun as well as from all the rowing she has been doing. At one point, Bird Man notices how exhausted Ava looks and offers to do the rowing for her while she takes a nap. Because of her extreme over-exertion of the past few days as well as the tension she is suffering from the loss of her sister and the strange journey she is undertaking to find her, Ava almost bursts into tears from Bird Man's tender offer. Instead of crying, Ava calls out, "I love you." This embarrasses her even more than the tears would have, and she quickly starts telling Bird Man stories about her mother and father so she...
(The entire section is 592 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Kiwi becomes a hero. Local reporters from several small newspapers around town have been called in to write the story of how Kiwi saved Emily Barton from drowning in one of the World of Darkness' swimming pools.
As one reporter asks him questions, Kiwi realizes that he has been given a great opportunity to help promote Swamplandia. What a joke it would be to mention his family's tourist attraction in an article about Swamplandia's biggest competition—The World of Darkness. However, when the story is published the next day, Swamplandia is not mentioned by name. The only reference made is erroneous, a mention that Kiwi was raised on an alligator farm. Kiwi takes this as an insult. An alligator farm is...
(The entire section is 606 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
Ava continues her journey through the swamp with Bird Man, still looking for her sister, Ossie. Ava senses that Bird Man is angry with her for having mentioned the dredge boat to the Park Service man, Whip Jeters. Jeters had questioned Ava to make sure she was all right. When Ava mentioned the dredge, asking Jeters if he had seen it, he had appeared a little suspicious. This concerned Bird Man.
After Jeters left, Bird Man asked Ava if she realized how much trouble she could have caused. If Jeters had forced Bird Man to turn his boat around and head back to the island on which Ava lived, Bird Man might have been charged with kidnapping a minor.
This frightens Ava and she tells Bird Man that she wants to go...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
Kiwi and his friends from The World of Darkness travel to the Pa-Hay-Okee Gaming establishment (a local casino), hoping that Kiwi's luck might help them to win money at the slot machines. While they are there, they enjoy an "all-you-can-eat" buffet as well as consume more alcohol than their bodies can handle.
In their stupor of food and drink, Vijay conducts his approach to finding his dreamed-for fortunes by befriending older women, hoping they appreciate his attention so much that they will then give him money with which to gamble.
Kiwi takes no part in Vijay's plan and wonders over to another section of the casino, where a so-called beauty pageant is being held. Kiwi is surprised to see that the women...
(The entire section is 555 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
Chapter 19 opens with Ava lying on the ground, seemingly with nothing better to do than stare up at the sky and take occasional glances at the plants around her. Then she mentions that "the man" is lying on top of her. In her naive world, Ava is not sure what Bird Man is doing to her. She even assists him when he attempts to take off her clothes. Then she feels pain and finally has a vague idea that she is being raped.
Despite this violent act against her, Ava wants to follow Bird Man when he stands and begins walking back to the boat. She wants him to love and need her. So when Bird Man calls out for her to come, Ava begins to walk toward him.
A voice inside Ava's head, which she thinks sounds like her...
(The entire section is 684 words.)
Chapters 20-21 Summary
Kiwi thought he would go back to the casino to talk to his father. Although he intended to do this, he made no arrangements for it to happen.
Instead, he asks Vijay to drive him to the local marina. There Kiwi's grandfather now lives in an assisted living facility set up in an old boat. The place is called "Out to Sea Retirement Community." When Kiwi signs the visitor log at the retirement home, he notices that his father visited two weeks earlier. He wonders if he might come again on that day. He considers erasing his name from the log and then changes his mind.
When Kiwi asks one of the residents where his grandfather is, Mr. Sawtooth Bigtree calls out "'I'm right here, you damn fool!'" However, once Kiwi...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Chapters 22-23 Summary
Kiwi passes the written portion of his pilot license process and takes his first flight. Vijay teases Kiwi about his not having any health insurance and should therefore not plan on crashing since he will have no one to support him, least of all Vijay himself.
Despite his nervous stomach, Kiwi makes it up into the air with his flight instructor sitting next to him. Once the plane levels off, Kiwi's stomach settles down and he feels proud of his accomplishment.
They fly over the town and later cross the harbor; they are able to view the swamps. When Kiwi looks down, he realizes not only how much he misses his home but also how beautiful the swampland is. The outlines of all the islands and the riverways are...
(The entire section is 541 words.)