Like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, the exclamation point tacked to the end of this fancifully-named, alligator-centric Florida park seems to linger in the air long after reading this descriptively vivid novel. It hangs shimmering, first an echo and then a sad mockery of Swamplandia!’s promising mythology. The hundred-acre island attraction was created by Chief Bigtree with the enthusiastic showmanship that seems endemic to the Florida coast (his title as “Chief” is self-assumed). His family’s expertise with alligators and their wholehearted embrace of his marketing ploys inform all of Swamplandia!’s shows and walking tours—but the main attraction is his wife, Hilola. Her every-weeknight-including-Saturdays dive into a well-stocked alligator pool, lit only by the stars and a follow-spot as she swims triumphantly past “icicle overbites,” is a tourist favorite and a source of deep pride for their three children, Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava (a precocious 13-yr-old whose older self is the narrator of their story). Hilola’s comparatively ignoble death from cancer (not a spoiler, I promise) is a personal and professional blow. Without their mother’s show and tourists eager to take a 40-minute ferry ride to see her cheat death, the edges of their island world become unpinned and the family drifts apart. Each of the children ends up, deliberately or accidentally, on a journey. Like miniature Jasons, they leave Swamplandia!’s familiar confines to complete a quest: Kiwi, to a literal “World of Darkness” on the mainland, to find the money to keep the park (and the family) going; Osceola, to find true love (across the boundary of the afterlife); and Ava, to find her sister and bring her back.
The children’s journeys are alternately, sometimes equally, amusing and disturbing. Emboldened by their own history and family pride, they are also hindered by an artlessness that is both shocking and touching. Somewhere in my brain, a patch of saw grass, as emblematic as anything of the arch beauty and associated pain integral to this unforgettable story, has taken root. Read it. But be prepared to give over some neurological real estate. Swamplandia! will stay with you.