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...
(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' park, are several pythons, one old crocodile, and a balding brown bear the family calls Judy Garland. The bear has been taught to bob his head when the song "Somewhere over the Rainbow" is played. This amuses some of the spectators. However, most children are frightened by this gesture, believing that the bear has gone mad.
Though the Bigtree family has faced many challenges by the time Ava is thirteen, nothing has been so devastating as the death of her mother. This catastrophe...
(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. Rather, it seems to be a very mysterious, dark forest.
When Ava asks her father about the Underworld, the Chief tells her that there is no such place. He adds that there also is no place called Heaven or Hell, either. Those are just imaginary places that Christians have conceived. Ava disagrees with her father's conclusions. She tells him that the Underworld is where people can meet with the dead. Later, Ossie and Ava make a Ouija board, through which they attempt to contact their...
(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, it seems as if one or more ghosts enter Ossie's body and take control of it. When Ava asks her sister about this, Ossie states that when she goes into a trance, she is going on a date with ghosts.
To take her mind off of what is happening to Ossie, Ava spends her days with her father, training to wrestle with alligators. Both her father and her mother were very accomplished in this endeavor. Ava wants to be just like her mother. Not only does she want to learn to wrestle, she also wants to dive into the pool of alligators as her mother once did. However, her father tells her that she is not yet strong enough to swim fast enough to get away from the alligators. So she will have to wait. In the meantime, Ava improves her timing in wrapping restrictive tape around an alligator's mouth, part of the wrestling routine. She is down to a little over four minutes. Her mother held the family record for quickest time, which was thirty seconds.
One day, Ava is frightened when she comes across Ossie, sitting with her head down on a picnic table. Ossie looks as if she is in a deep sleep. Ava attempts to waken her, but she has trouble doing so. When Ossie finally stirs, she confesses that she had been doing a séance and has no idea how long she has been unconscious. Ava tells her brother about this incident because she is worried about Ossie's mental health. Recently, Ossie has been spending more and more time communicating with ghosts. In turn, Kiwi relates this new development to their father. The Chief does not take the account very seriously. He does not believe in ghosts and dismisses Ossie's strange behavior by telling the other children that Ossie is boy-crazy and will grow out of this stage soon....
(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 is an item missing—their mother's wedding dress. Ava believes that Ossie has taken it and is worried about her.
Kiwi is not impressed. He has other problems to think about. He tells Ava that he has recently read all of their father's mail and now is fully aware of how much debt the Chief has accrued. He does not think that the family can survive much longer and hates his father for having put them in such devastating circumstances. In Kiwi's mind, the only option they have left is to leave Swamplandia and move to the mainland. They could go to school there, find decent jobs, and then go on to college
Ava wants no part of her brother's plan. She cannot imagine ever leaving Swamplandia. Living among all those crowds of people on the mainland would drive her crazy, she concludes. Besides, if they left, who would take care of the animals, their house, and the park? She even tells Kiwi that their mother would surely be angry with them if they abandoned the only place they have ever known, the place that their mother loved so much.
Kiwi points out that it is time for Ava to wake up. Their mother is dead, he reminds her. She is never coming back. The next morning there is a note on the refrigerator. It is from Kiwi. He has gone to the mainland. The Chief is furious, not so much because his son has left them but because Kiwi stole $300 from him.
For the next few days, Ava tries to stay busy enough so she will not have any time to worry about Kiwi. This is a difficult task, as there are no more tourists coming to the island. As a result, all the Swamplandia shows have been canceled. The Chief announces that he will take advantage of the lull in business to travel to the mainland...
(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 trees and Ava pours herbicide on the remaining trunks.
While wandering through the woods, Ava and Ossie discover that a very old boat has been washed up a canal and become stuck on the vegetation. Cautiously, the two sisters board the boat and explore it. Ossie has seen a picture of a similar boat in a photograph that her father hung in Swamplania's museum. She concludes that the boat is a dredge, a ship equipped with an apparatus that can dig up the sludge that has accumulated on the bottom of the swamp. As the boat digs up the sludge, it creates canals, waterways that allow small boats to make their way through the swamp.
While onboard the old boat, the girls find maps, clothing, and old food. The map, dated 1936, is only partially drawn, as if the mapmaker was interrupted in the middle of his project. As Ava continues to explore other areas of the boat, she attempts to find a lock that will fit the key she has found but is unsuccessful.
Ossie sits down with her Ouija board and tries to make contact with any nearby ghosts. While Ava explores, Ossie becomes involved in her continuing practice of conjuring. She shares only a a few details of her experiences with Ava, including having communicated with a couple of mainland high school boys who recently died.
Shortly after they discover the boat, however, Ossie's new dead contact, whom she calls Louis, seems different to Ava. With the other boys, Ossie pinned news stories on the bedroom wall so that Ava could read for herself that these boys once lived. With Louis, though, Ava appears to have learned about the boy's history from some other source. Ava has no idea where her sister is finding these details and wonders if Ossie...
(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.
Louis then made his way to the south, where he found a job as a dredgeman, working on a boat that was digging out canals in the swamps of Georgia. Despite the harsh conditions, the constant presence of biting insects, alligators, unbearable heat, and humidity, Louis loved his first job. In comparison to the environment in which he grew up, the swamps felt like paradise. He had never been happier. He had friends (his fellow dredgers), he laughed, he shared stories. Yes, he had to work hard, but it was not as hard as he had worked on the farm.
Louis was so happy that he could not stop smiling. Because of his constant smiling, some of the men who worked with Louis worried about his sanity, but only at first. They soon discovered that Louis was a genuinely pleasant young man. He gave them anything they asked for and worked the dirtiest jobs without complaining.
Louis' attitude did not change even when the second job he took on was much more difficult than the first. The new company that hired Louis wanted a bigger and longer canal built using a boat that was smaller and not as well equipped as the first boat Louis was on. This new company also wanted the job completed faster. So Louis had to work twice as hard in a Florida swamp that was many times larger than the one he was working in Georgia.
One night after weeks of working the Florida swamp, a loud explosion came from the boiler room of the boat. Gideon, the man in charge of the boiler, was burned by the scalding water that was released. Before the men could help Gideon, a large flock of vultures descended on the boat and then flew away with parts of Gideon locked in their beaks and talons. When the remaining members of the crew saw the...
(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 he calls "the restaurant" across the street from the World of Darkness, the amusement park where Kiwi currently works. Vijay points out that the so-called restaurant is really nothing more than a fast-food burger hut where the employees make less than Kiwi does.
While sitting on their break one day, Vijay and Kiwi notice a sea plane make a dramatic landing in one of the artificial water pools outside the World of Darkness. Kiwi asks Vijay how much money he thinks a pilot is paid. Once Vijay tells him, Vijay decides that he will learn to fly a plane. After all, he drove all types of boats and used various mechanical apparatus at Swamplandia. He imagines that flying a plane can be no more complicated than driving a truck, so he confronts his supervisor, Carl Jenks, about promoting him to the position of pilot for the amusement park.
Upon hearing Kiwi's request, Carl asks: "Are you crazy?" He then reminds Kiwi that it was just a few weeks ago that Kiwi broke the vacuum. Carl has also heard that Kiwi has been using drugs (rumors created because of Kiwi's association with Vijay) and that he has been sexually harassing a female coworker (complaints reported because Kiwi developed a crush on the young woman and was very awkward in approaching her). Then Carl announces that Scott, the payroll manager, has claimed that Kiwi has no mind for math because of Kiwi's complaint concerning all the deductions subtracted from his paycheck.
In the end, although he turns down Kiwi's request to become a pilot, Carl offers him the position of lifeguard at one of the World of Darkness's swimming pools. Kiwi asks if this means he is being promoted and Carl answers that that is a good way to think of it,...
(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 find her sister and bring her back home. She wonders if she should call her father or the park police.
Although Bird Man does not stop her from calling anyone on the mainland, he does dissuade her, telling her that if she relates the story to any normal person, they will probably not believe her and think that both she and Ossie are crazy. If they find Ossie, they will more than likely put her into an institution for people who are suffering from mental illness. Bird Man also informs Ava that if Ossie has indeed entered the underworld, the police would not find her anyway.
Ava asks Bird Man if he knows how to enter the underworld. Bird Man only says that it is a very difficult journey. Ava tells him that she could help him. She is strong from wrestling with the alligators and not afraid of anything. She adds that if he helps her find Ossie, she will find some way to pay him.
Reluctantly, Bird Man gives in. Ava packs as much food as she can carry while Bird Man collects knives, fishing line, and other materials he thinks they might need. Then they set off in his "skiff." They cannot use a motor, so Ava will have to help his row the boat.
During the first three hours of the trip, Ava has many questions. She wants to know how far Bird Man thinks Ossie has gone, whether she might have already made it to the underground, and other questions such as whether he thought Ossie was crazy, none of which Bird Man can answer; for the most part, he ignores them. Further into the journey, Bird Man starts to chant, repeating over and over the word "and." Bird Man tells Ava that this is a "transition song," suggesting that they are getting closer to the opening of the underworld. At first...
(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 climb up an old staircase to one of the houses, she declines, asking him to go first.
Once inside, although the house is flecked with dead insects and bird droppings, Ava feels secure in the house that Bird Man has chosen for the night. The house is surprisingly stable and even has a few pieces of decent furniture.
Ava asks Bird Man if he has another name by which she can call him. Bird Man says that when he was a child, he had a first name but he sees no reason for him to us it now. Changing the topic, Ava breaks her promise to her sister and tells Bird Man the story of the ghost, Louis. Ossie had made Ava swear she would tell no one. Ava wants to know if there is any hidden meaning in the story, especially the part about the vultures and the way that Louis died. Ava also thinks that it was unfair that Louis had to die so young before he did anything with his life. This must have been very difficult for Ava to grasp, having someone who was so close to her own age die. Bird Man, however, offers no help in understanding the strange story.
In the morning, Bird Man speaks to a fisherman who says that he saw a strange boat (possibly the old dredge that Ossie might be on) about two miles west of where Bird Man and Ava have spent the night. This news appears to make Bird Man very excited. He is anxious to set out in that direction.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, Kiwi has completed his training as a lifeguard and has begun his first day of work. While he is on duty, Kiwi hears several swimmers yell out that someone is drowning. Kiwi's first response is to wonder why someone else is not saving her. Then it dawns on him that this is the reason why he has his new job, and he dives into...
(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 has time to hide her feelings.
Ava tells Bird Man about the shows that her mother used to perform. She also relates how much time and effort her fathers put in behind the stage, such as the special lighting effects he created to make her mother look like a movie star. Ava's father used to say that he was Ava's mother's "sun."
After sharing this tale with Bird Man, Ava evaluates the emotions she is experiencing and realizes that she has been wishing Bird Man would love her. After Bird Man informs Ava that he knew a lot about her mother from all the advertisements that were posted on billboards on the mainland and on posters in the swamps, he adds that he thought her mother was beautiful. Bird Man's comments do not end there. He also tells Ava that he thinks she looks just like her mother. Bird Man's statement thrills Ava.
Their journey to find Ossie proves to be much more difficult than Ava had imagined. Clouds of mosquitoes often descend upon them. The canal sometimes come to dead ends, forcing Bird Man and Ava to hoist their boat up over their heads and carry it over wide patches of land.
After one such hike across a marshland, Bird Man places the boat back in the water and shortly afterward, both Bird Man and Ava hear the sound of an outboard motor. When they search the horizon, they pinpoint a small boat moving toward them. When it nears, Ava recognizes the black and beige Park Service boat. The man inside is Whip Jeters, an old friend of Ava's father. Bird Man tries to push Ava deeper into the hull of his boat, but Whip asks Bird Man who he is trying to hide. Bird Man claims he is not trying to conceal anyone. The child is his young cousin, who has been trying to nap....
(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 nothing like an alligator-wrestling tourist attraction.
Despite the lack of attention Swamplandia receives in the news story, Kiwi's popularity as a local hero spreads all over the small town. First to respond to Kiwi's notoriety are his fellow workers, who take Kiwi out to a local bar the following night. Emily Barton is also invited to go along. During the course of the evening, Kiwi becomes very drunk. Emily Barton takes advantage of this and before dropping Kiwi at his apartment, Emily makes sure that Kiwi loses his virginity.
For several days after the news story about Kiwi's heroic act, Kiwi enjoys what his boss, Carl, refers to as Kiwi's fifteen minutes of fame. People who come to the amusement park seek Kiwi out for his autograph. By the end of the week, though, the excitement dies down and Kiwi returns to the monotony of his boring job at The World of Darkness.
One day when Kiwi is called into his boss's office, he notices a change in Carl. For some unknown reason, Carl sounds as if he is jealous of Kiwi. After making fun of Kiwi by referring to his physique as looking more feminine than masculine, Carl tells Kiwi that the management at the World of Darkness has decided to give him a chance at becoming one of their airplane pilots, a dream Kiwi has been harboring. Carl reminds Kiwi not to let this go to his head because he suspects that Kiwi will fail all the tests required to gain his license.
After this announcement, Kiwi goes through all the requirements, including getting a physical examination from a doctor and studying with a flight instructor approved by the administrators from The World of Darkness. It will take Kiwi four months to study, learn the basics...
(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 home. She is sensing how vulnerable she is with Bird Man, a person she barely knows. She is in the middle of the swamp in his boat and has no idea how to get home on her own. She is in territory that she has never before explored. Bird Man encourages her to be brave. They are the only ones who can find Ossie, he reminds Ava.
Ava's hopes increase when a few minutes later, she sees the two tall mounds of sea shells—relics of an ancient Indian tribe. According to local lore, the tall mounds represent the "eye" or the opening to the underworld.
The passage between the two enormous shell mounds is only about four feet wide. Bird Man's boat barely squeezes through. At one point as they are pushing their way through the narrow gap, Ava looks up and sees a ribbon snagged on some of the shells. She recognizes the ribbon as Ossie's. She almost falls out of the boat when she grabs it. For some reason she does not understand, she hides the ribbon in her pocket and does not tell Bird Man about it.
After they make their way past the mounds of shells, Ava thinks she sees someone walking through the woods not far from the water. When she calls out, Bird Man slaps her face. This stuns Ava and she becomes even more frightened of him.
Much later, Ava hears a radio. She recognizes not only the song that is playing but also the radio station. Again she calls out, and again Bird Man shouts at her to be quiet.
Ava stares at Bird Man, trying desperately to read the expressions on his face so she can determine if he is a friend or an enemy. Ava does not know if it is her fear or if she has finally understood the dire circumstances in which she has put herself. Either way,...
(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 who are vying for the crown are much older than the girls he has seen in other beauty contests and that they are not very attractive. However this does not surprise him as much as when he recognizes the man who is the host of the pageant. The old man with the thick glasses and grayish complexion is Kiwi's father.
As Kiwi hides in the shadows, afraid that his father might see him, he worries about him. Chief Bigtree does not look well. The phrases his father is using to talk about the women in the show are familiar. Kiwi had heard these same words used by his father to introduce his mother's act at Swamplandia. As the shock of seeing his father wears off, Kiwi begins to reflect on what his father's presence at a casino means. In the process, Kiwi's image of his father is transformed.
At Swamplandia, Kiwi's concept of his father was that of a man who was both physically strong (powerful enough to wrestle alligators) and very independent emotionally (he never backed down from an argument). Here at the casino, however, a man much smaller and much younger (Kiwi assumes he is his father's boss) than Chief Bigtree berates him in public.
Kiwi expects his father to punch the man, but all that his father does is bow his head and submit to the man. In addition, Kiwi thought his father had left Swamplandia to find investors for the park. If that were true, what was he doing working at a small casino? This makes Kiwi wonder if his father has had this job for a long time, possibly all through Kiwi's childhood. Is it to a job at the casino that his father always went whenever he left Swamplandia?
When Kiwi sees his father stumble and then bend over in a coughing fit, he feels sorry for...
(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 mother talking to her, tells Ava to run away. The voice is fearful of Bird Man. He has lied to her. There is no underworld, and there is a chance that he knows no better where they are in the swamp than Ava does. So Ava, trusting her body's reaction more so than her mind and emotions, decides to run. Before she turns away from Bird Man, she takes her small red alligator pet out of her pocket, untapes the alligator's jaws, and flings the reptile at Bird Man. As the man struggles with the alligator, Ava begins to run.
She does not know how long she runs and she has no idea in what direction her home lies. All she thinks about is getting away from Bird Man. There are still moments that the thought of going back to him lingers in her mind and she wonders if Bird Man is her only chance of staying alive in this hostile environment. These moments do not last long, however; they stop each time Ava feels new pangs of pain from his having raped her.
To stave off her hunger, thirst, and fear, Ava computes mathematical problems in her head as she continues running. Over time, her thirst grows so intense the she finally decides that the muddy water all around her is better to drink than no water at all.
When she stops running, she listens to the sounds around her. She thinks that maybe Bird Man is not chasing her after all. Once she is able to relax even a little, her survival skills, ones that she has learned from living her entire life in the swamps, begin coming back to her. For instance, to confirm that she is going in the right direction, Ava unlaces one of her shoe strings, ties it to a cypress root, and watches the string float on the water. The current in the swamps, she knows, always moves...
(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 presents himself, his grandfather does not appear to recognize him.
Kiwi, having no one else in the family to talk to since he refuses to return to the casino to see his father and since no one answers the phone at home, decides he will unburden himself on his grandfather. First Kiwi tells him that Kiwi's mother is dead. Until this moment, no one had told Sawtooth Bigtree of this event, even though it had happened over a year ago.
Then Kiwi tells his grandfather that the family business, Swamplandia, is in financial trouble. Tourists have stopped coming to the show. Kiwi asks his grandfather if he knows that Kiwi's father is working at a casino, trying to make money to save Swamplandia. Kiwi also tells his grandfather about Ossie communicating with ghosts and that he is working at Swamplandia's biggest competitor, The World of Darkness. Kiwi confesses that he feels as if he is a traitor.
Kiwi's motive for telling all of this to his grandfather is to make the old family patriarch hurt. Kiwi believes that since his grandfather is part of his family and since the rest of his family is suffering, Grandfather Bigtree should be hurting too.
Grandfather's reaction to all of Kiwi's announcements is to turn to face Kiwi and then spit in his face. Then Sawtooth Bigtree raises his fist and swings it in Kiwi's direction, hitting him in the jaw. The next thing Kiwi realizes is that his grandfather is trying to choke him. Although his grandfather has grown frail with age, his large hands are still very strong and Kiwi has trouble breathing.
It takes some time for Kiwi to realize that he must fight back or Sawtooth Bigtree would kill him. So Kiwi twists and turns his...
(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 visible. Kiwi never realized how beautiful the marshy land could be.
Kiwi's instructor, Denny, tells Kiwi to take the plane down to about 500 feet so they can see even more detail of the all-but-vacant swampland. As they follow one of the rivers, they come upon the ancient mounds of sea shells referred to as the Door to the Underground. When they approach the mounds, they notice the figure of a woman standing on the side of the river, waving her arms frantically. As he is flying a seaplane, Kiwi is able to land on the water. Immediately he jumps out because he has recognized the woman as his sister, Ossie.
She is standing next to a wrecked boat, the dredge barge upon which Louis, Ossie's ghost boyfriend, once worked. Ossie explains that she was piloting the boat when it crashed into a cypress tree, smashing the hull of the boat. She also tells her brother that she was planning on marrying Louis but that he disappeared before that could happen.
Kiwi notices a rope handing from a limb of a nearby tree. He distinguishes a noose hanging on the end. He wonders if his sister was planning on hanging herself to be with Louis. Ossie does not mention this, but she does confirm that she knows Louis is never coming back. Ossie is dehydrated and has not eaten for several days.
Not too far away, Ava is still by herself but has just heard Bird Man call out her name. To get away from him, Ava jumps into a "gator hole." The depression is filled with water, and Ava soon discovers that the hole has no bottom. She sees a light below her and swims toward it, finding a limestone cave at the end. She discovers a hole in one of the cave's walls and is able to escape.
When Ava emerges...
(The entire section is 541 words.)