Swamplandia! is a 2011 novel by Karen Russell. Set in the Ten Thousand Islands, off the southwest coast of Florida, it is the story of the Bigtree family of alligator wrestlers who live on Swamplandia!, an alligator-wrestling theme park.Swamplandia! is Russell’s first novel. The book originated as a short story, titled “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”, published in the Summer 2006 issue of the literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story, when Russell was 24 years old.


The novel opens with the Bigtree family suffering tragedy and finding their way of life under threat. The family patriarch, Sawtooth Bigtree, has recently been confined to a floating nursing home with dementia and his daughter-in-law, Hilola Bigtree, has died of cancer, leaving behind a husband and three teenage children. Meanwhile, a brand new amusement park, The World of Darkness, has opened nearby on the Florida mainland. In light of plummeting attendance and mounting debts, The Chief, Hilola’s husband, unveils a plan for improvements to Swamplandia!, but his son Kiwi is skeptical and suggests selling the park altogether. Having grown up on Swamplandia! himself, the Chief is adamantly opposed to abandoning his family’s unique heritage and lifestyle.

The Chief’s middle child, Osceola, becomes obsessed with ghosts and with occult knowledge she’s gleaned from an old book, The Spiritist’s Telegraph. Osceola begins to hold seances with her younger sister Ava attempt to contact their dead mother. Osceola’s loneliness and inability to talk with her mother drives her to talk to dead “boyfriends”. Osceola sometimes disappears at night leading her sister to worry that she might be possessed by spirits.

Meanwhile, Kiwi continues to clash with his father, and he eventually decides to leave the island in an attempt to save Swamplandia! on his own. He finds minimum-wage employment as a janitor at The World of Darkness and eventually befriends his coworker Vijay, who helps him learn to adopt normal teenage vernacular and mannerisms. Kiwi begins to attend night school and is promoted to lifeguard. When he rescues a teenage girl, Kiwi becomes a local hero and, as a result, The World of Darkness sends him to train as an airplane pilot.

With no new tourists arriving at Swamplandia!, The Chief decides to shut the park down and to take a business trip of unspecified purpose and duration to the mainland, leaving Ava and Osceola alone on the island. One day, while clearing melaleuca plants on a remote part of the island, Ava and Osceola discover a decaying dredge boat offshore. The girls recover some artifacts and Osceola attempts to communicate with the dead crew using her Ouija board. Osceola reveals what she has learned: In the 1930s a young man named Louis Thanksgiving ran away from the abuse of his adoptive family on a farm in the midwest. Osceola confesses that she is in love with Louis’ ghost and, when Osceola and the dredge disappear, Ava fears that she has run off with him.

Now alone on Swamplandia!, Ava meets the Bird Man and hires him to take her in his pole boat to find her sister. Ava and the Bird Man travel into the remote wilderness. Eventually, Ava becomes convinced that the Bird Man has no special powers and that he is taking advantage of her. When they encounter a group of drunken fishermen, Ava screams to get their attention, and the Bird Man silences her. Later, the Bird Man rapes the thirteen-year-old Ava. Ava flees the Bird Man and escapes by diving into a pond where she wrestles her way out of an alligator attack. She surfaces and strikes out across the dense sawgrass marshes still miles from home.

Kiwi, meanwhile, discovers that his fiercely independent father has been working secretly at a casino, possibly for many years. Kiwi continues his pilot training and, on his first flight, notices Osceola, wearing the remains of their mother’s wedding dress, stranded in the swamp. Osceola explains that she did elope with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, but that Louis left her at the altar. Ava, Osceola and Kiwi are reunited with their father. As the family plans for the future, they realize that they will have to abandon Swamplandia! and move to the mainland, where Ava and Osceola will attend high school.

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