Ok, this might be a long one. I have a lot to say about this book, and I’m not even sure how I feel about it. I think the accompanying picture of the Sticky Note Review comes pretty close.
Firstly, I didn’t read the book, this was a book-on-CD experience for me, and that may be part of the problem. The story is told in two voices, Ava and Kiwi Bigtree, brother and sister. Ava’s parts are in the first person, Kiwi’s in the third; Kiwi is voiced by an adult man, Ava is voiced by a young girl. That might make sense if the story was being told in the present tense, but it isn’t. The story is being told by Ava, at least some time after the events of the book occur, at one point she says it took her “years” to deal with a particular incident. However, and regardless of whether the age of the girl voicing Ava is correct, we also have a pronunciation problem. On some simple words, like “mangrove” and “Ocala.” I’m pretty sure you don’t need to live in Florida to know how to pronounce those words, but perhaps not. And regardless, Ava is a Floridian, so she should be able to pronounce the words correctly. It drove me nuts throughout the entire book.
Anyway. So. The story is about the Bigtree family, although that’s not their real name. Grandpa was originally Ernest Schedrach,but moved to Florida from the midwest after buying some literal swampland. He and his wife made it work, and thus was born Swamplandia(!). Also born was The Chief, who married Hilola Owens, brought her to Swamplandia(!) and turned her into an alligator wrestler. The island, the act, and the (pretty much) alligator farm was (for a time) a big attraction to a certain kind of tourist.
Grandpa Sawtooth calls all the alligators “Seths” – I can’t remember why. But regardless, throughout the book, Ava uses “Seth” to mean “alligator” way too often for my taste. Mostly because it’s stupid. Or is it Russell showing off her research and super brains? So let’s do the research. In mythology (or the bible, depending on your beliefs), Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, born after the whole Cain/Abel kerfuffle. He’s believed to be Noah’s ancestor, and therefore the father of all mankind (if you believe that whole flood deal).
Sorry to go on about all of this – there’s really no sense in me going over the plot, there’s too much of it. But here’s the nutshell (here there be spoylers): Mom dies, the family falls apart. Dad disappears, Kiwi runs away and works at a rival attraction, Osceola (the middle child) believes she is dating and possessed by a ghost of a boy who died decades ago (and runs away to marry him), and Ava goes to look for her in the Everglades with the aid of the Birdman. The naivete of the Bigtree kids is heartbreaking, both for the reader, and for themselves. The Bigtree diaspora is resolved a bit too easily, but at that point the book I needed the book to end.
I still don’t know how I feel about the book, but I think I’m pretty sure I didn’t like it. Bits of it were well-written, but only bits. The rest were just too much.