Swamplandia! is a novel by Karen Russell. Swamplandia! is also a place, one of Florida's Ten Thousand Islands, and a tourist attraction, and it's always written with an exclamation point, which never failed to amuse or touch me, depending on the context, throughout the book. Swamplandia! is rundown and hokey and pretty seedy, but the Bigtree family (a self-styled tribe with "not a drop of Seminole or Miccosuke blood") is inordinately proud of their outfit. It was once the "Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Cafe in the area." It featured a Bigtree museum (housing family photographs and outgrown clothing, among other things), alligator breeding tanks (all of Swamplandia!'s alligators are called "Seth"), and an alligator wrestling show. The entire family--the Chief and his wife, the lovely Hilola, and their three children, Kiwi (the oldest, a boy), Osceola (a girl), and Ava, help keep the place running. Ava is even apprenticed to her mother, who is the star attraction. The Bigtrees are tightknit and proud and happy together in their isolation.
But when Hilola dies of ovarian cancer the family and all they've built together starts to unravel. First, the ethereal Osceola begins to commune with ghosts...then she starts dating them. Kiwi runs away to the city to seek his fortune (and an education); there he finds a job with the brand new World of Darkness attraction, a giant corporate competitor that doesn't even know Swamplandia! exists. And finally, the Chief heads off the island on a business trip, leaving the two girls alone. When Osceola "elopes" with her ghost boyfriend, Ava elicits the help of a stranger who calls himself the Birdman, to help her find Osceola.
What ensues is an eerie journey through the primeval swamp in which the Ten Thousand Islands are situated. Ava's journey through the swamp to find the underworld has been called magical, and it is. It is also fraught with dread, for the reader as much as for Ava herself. Who is this Birdman? Why in the world would he tell a little girl he could lead her to the underworld? Can this possibly end well?
Well. It does and it doesn't. But Swamplandia!, packed as it is with gorgeous and often clever writing (one of my favorites: all of the young employees of the World of Darkness simply refer to it as "the World," a fact which makes young Kiwi mentally squirm even as he finds himself taking up the practice), atmosphere of place so rich you could eat it with a spoon, and quirky but still well-developed characters, is truly a winner.