This is a very hard book to categorize. It is part thriller, part paranormal romance, part survivalist family saga, but mostly it is a coming-of-age story. The three Bigtree children, Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava, come of age in various ways in the pages of the book.
The Bigtree children and their parents live on an island in the Florida swamps which the patriarch of the family, the children's grandfather, named Swamplandia. They have a kind of theme park there to entice the tourists and they are hanging on to solvency by a thread. Their shtick is wrestling alligators and the star of their show and their family is the mother of the family.
We meet them as tragedy strikes. Their star, the anchor of the family, falls ill from ovarian cancer and dies. The Bigtrees are bereft and at a loss as to how to cope. The theme park flounders under the loss of its star and competition from a rival park called The World of Darkness. It is what Ava calls "the beginning of the end."
The Bigtrees' story is revealed through the eyes of Ava, the youngest child, and Kiwi, the oldest. We don't hear much from Osceola (Ossie) and yet it is her actions and her fate that are the impetus for much that happens here.
Kiwi leaves the family, running away to the mainland, after stealing money from his father. He gets a job with The World of Darkness - or The World as its employees call it - but his main goal in life is to make enough money to save his family's theme park.
The head of the family, Sam, called Chief, leaves the park to go to the mainland "on business." He leaves teenagers Ossie and Ava alone to care for the alligators and their home.
Ossie leaves the family in another way - mentally, psychologically - as she becomes "possessed" by the ghost of a dredgerman named Louis Thanksgiving. Eventually, she runs away to "marry" him.
Ossie's departure in the middle of the night leads 13-year-old Ava to follow her into the swamps to rescue her. In this she is aided(?) by a mysterious character known as the Bird Man. What Ava endures in the swamps as she tries desperately to find Ossie - and maybe her dead mother as well - tests the very limits of her physical and mental strength.
This is a beautifully written book, full of magical realism, and it has a poetic voice and a joy of life that even in its darkest moments - and there are some - make for an uplifting and heartwarming story. Some might find the ending unsatisfying. Not all the loose ends are tied up neatly. Not all sinners are punished, at least as far as we know. But the swamp holds many secrets and I prefer to believe that one of those secrets is the just fate of the biggest miscreant of all.
This is a vividly entertaining book. Easy to see why it was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for 2011. Hard to believe that it was Karen Russell's first novel.