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.)