Ava wants to be an alligator wrestler like her mother, in her family’s Florida tourist trap, Swamplandia! Things fall apart when her mother dies, tho. She was the main attraction, and without her, tourists stop coming, preferring the newer, bigger attraction World of Darkness.
Both Ava’s father, the Chief, and her brother Kiwi leave for the mainland to earn some money. Ava’s brother Osceola elopes with a ghost. Ava takes off for the underworld with her new friend Birdman (who seems more sinister every passing hour) to bring Ossie back, secretly hoping she might also find her mother there.
So, is this a fantasy, or a realistic book partly narrated by an imaginative 13 year old girl? You’ll read nearly to the end before you find out. And read you will, because Karen Russell can really turn a phrase. She creates great characters, like Kiwi, who’s really smart, with an extensive vocabulary, most of which he mispronounces. Trying to fit in at his job at World of Darkness is truly hellish for him.
So is Ava’s journey to the underworld. The book gets darker than you’d imagine at first, and more suspenseful. Tho nicely resolved, the door seems open for a sequel. Writers this ambitious seldom go that direction, but she’s written about the Bigtree family before, in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Gotta read that soon.