Occasionally, I'll have good intentions to read a novel based on recommendations from a wide range of friends or readers I trust. Swamplandia was one of those books. I started it, was interrupted, and I let it sit there on the night stand for weeks, months maybe. Then I started over. (Note: It is almost always worth the trouble of starting from scratch when you have stopped reading a book. It seems like a waste of time, but it grounds me again in the work. Since I often re-read the first few pages when I finish a book, maybe this serves a similar purpose.)
Swamplandia is set in the swamps of Florida on an island housing a family-owned, nearly defunct alligator park--Swamplandia! (Yes, the exclamation park is part of the name and the book title.) As the book opens, Ava Bigtree, the youngest daughter narrates after her mother, the great gator wrestler Hilola Bigtree, dies of cancer. The mother's death affects them all, as does the opening of the nearby World of Darkness, a hell-themed amusement park, less nostalgic than Swamplandia! Ava feels compelled to train to take over her mother's role; her sister Osceola reads a book on spiritualism and falls in love with a ghost. Brother Kiwi Bigtree runs away from home and takes a job at World of Darkness, hoping to save the family and the park from economic doom.
When Kiwi leaves, Russell begins alternating between a third person narrator of the segments involving him and the first person account of Ava, the not-quite-naive narrator. When their father leaves the island for a long period, Ava ends up alone, her sister eloping with her ghost, Kiwi out of touch. The arrival of The Big Man, a gypsy who rids the area of bird of prey, produces the real tension of the story as Ava innocently seeks someone to love and trust when left to survive on her own.
Russell's writing is often lyrical without drawing undue attention to itself. She develops her setting so clearly I could feel the damp, could smell the swamp. Despite the grand pretensions by their father, the self-proclaimed Chief, readers rarely lose sight of the real story--a family that falls apart after losing their mother.