When Swamplandia! was suggested for the next read for my work book group, I was more than game. Just look at that cover - something both fairy tale like and ridiculous about it. And the thought of a family of alligator wrestlers posing as Native Americans and running a tourist trap where their "Seths" (the name shared by all their gators) and diving, wrestling mother are the prime attractions just appealed to me immensely. I find potential in most things audaciously cheesy. But this turned out to not be cheesy. It was whimsical and charmingly written and bittersweet, and in an odd way, a slice of Americana that we seldom hear of in an increasingly homogenized world.
The language will grab you even before the unusual aspects of the story. I started out jotting down bits and pieces but gave up thirty pages in when I realized I would probably be writing down a third of the book. Fanciful and imaginative without seeming forced, the writing charms with the likes of "the tourists moved sproingily from buttock to buttock in the stands" and "Her face was like our mother's face cast forward onto cloudy water." And the voice of thirteen year old narrator, Ava, is a real triumph, avoiding the standard pitfalls of child perspective in an adult novel as it straddles the blurry border between the innocence of childhood and a practical knowledge of the world.
The loss of the mother to cancer early in the book precipitates the financial difficulties of the park. Without the star of their show and the head of their family, the Bigtrees enters a downward spiral marked by dwindling tourists, squalid living conditions and some unusual dietary choices. The dementia-suffering grandfather has been exported to a senior home mainland and the father is forced to take an extended "business trip" to attempt to shore up the family finances. The eldest child has exited to a competing theme park to attempt to save his family from a father he believes delusional in his hopes for their futures. And that leaves just Ava and her sixteen year old sister Ossi alone on their island, and when Ossi flees the island to elope with her ghost boyfriend, Ava chases after her on a perilous journey through the swamp and away from childhood.
Such a synopsis may not sound particularly special but to read it is a different experience. Full of the beauty of the natural surroundings, the mysteries and magic of the Florida swamps, and a child's unwavering ability to believe in both herself and something larger than her ability to comprehend mark this book as something special. The Bigtree family are all a little childlike with the possible exception of the mother whose personal disappointments we are privy to in bits and pieces, and have carefully written their own story, their own reality. The trials posed to them force them to abandon their self-scripted path, and reside in a space that is uncomfortable for them. As we see near the end of the book, "Only the luckiest ones got to live inside stories."
Dreamy alligator wrestlers make for a good read in this unique and sometimes frightening story. Stripped of the mystical elements in the novel, it would be easy to oversimplify it as a coming of age story but there is much more here. A revelation of humanity in general, of what lies beneath our carefully constructed facades, of what lies beneath what is sometimes only the illusion of magic. And the awkward and sometimes painful but necessary moment when the magic we have lent to children is revealed to be less than how we have gifted it to them. And the hope that genuine magic for adults and children alike is still possible.