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“Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree has lived her entire life at Swamplandia!, her family’s island home and gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. But when illness fells Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, the family is plunged into chaos; her father withdraws, her sister falls in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival park called The World of Darkness. As Ava sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality.”
When I was lent this book [Hi Raye!] it sounded like everything I loved. Floridian swamp life, gators, gator wrestlers, what is essentially GatorLand.
I even read a review of it before I started reading it that called it ‘Like Alice in Wonderland, if Wonderland were the Swamps of Florida.’ I almost had to pick my brainmeats up off the floor from the mind-explosion of amazing this book sounded like.
…And then I started to read it.
I kinda ended up hating this book… at least at the beginning. I felt bad because it came so recommended, and I was like ‘how can I hate a book that has so much of what I love in it???’
The answer is, the atmosphere and descriptions of the environments is/are great. I didn’t read up much on the Author, but she either put in a shit ton of research about the swamplands and swamp people of Florida/Florida history and legends, or she actually lived there. The environment was like basking in home all over again. There were even towns/cities mentioned that I lived in! Those parts, were great. And the Author is a talented writer.
I hated every single character in this book. Except for maybe the mom [who dies very early on – it’s in the synopsis] which I think I was mostly partial to because the loss of a parent struck me pretty hard being that my own dad died earlier this year.
The family that the book centers around, a family of alligator wrestlers [who call their alligators ‘Seths’], that also call themselves Native Americans on the FL swamplands [an offshoot of Seminole] when they are not, in fact, anything but white people that moved out to the FL swamplands because the land was cheap. That part, was really offensive.
I’m sure it was supposed to be offensive, in some kinda humorous way, but the Seminole people and other FL natives were almost all hunted down [as was most Native Americans, but I learned a lot especially about the Seminole Wars in school, went to school with a quite a few Native American kids who were Seminole, so its more personal] and the family [mostly the father] were trying to use that to bring in extra tourism and I really just hated it.
There’s the dad ‘The Chief’ [scowls], who cannot face the fact that the park is going under since his wife’s death [the star of the park] and especially with a new theme park that opened near them taking all their potential customers. He’s terrible with money, irresponsible, thinks he can do no wrong, and just generally kinda shady.
There’s Kiwi, the oldest of the kids and self-appointed ‘genius’ who is really anything but, who is so obnoxious in flaunting how smart he is [that he thinks he is] that when he finds out he’s not, his failures at first are almost satisfying. There’s Osceola [yes, really] the middle teenaged sister who becomes obsessed with the occult because of one single book and lets herself be ‘possessed’ throughout the book and romantically ‘dates’ various ghosts and essentially lives in her own little world.
And then there’s Ava, the youngest sibling and the main protagonist of the book. She’s freshly 13, but because she’s never been allowed to experience life outside of alligator wrestling, she, like her siblings, are immature, naive, inexperienced, and Ava especially, doesn’t ever seem to know what to do with herself. [Especially after the death of her mother, who held the park and family together] I ultimately disliked her the least because she’s so young and doesn’t know any better, but mostly the entire book I felt either sorry for her, or annoyance.
The book switches back and forth between Ava staying at Swamplandia! and Kiwi, who leaves to try and help save his family and the park. During which, Osceola abandons Ava to go to the ‘Underworld’ with a ghost, and their father up and leaves for awhile for aforementioned shady reasons, as Ava is trying to keep everything together.
The first half of the book was excruciating for me to get through. I felt like giving it up multiple times because I just disliked it so much. I couldn’t feel anything but annoyance with the characters, and the story crawled soooooo slowlllyyyy.
It was only once I got more than halfway through the book that I decided to just keep at it because I had already come that far, once the plot picked up a little and more characters came into play.
However, it became apparent the theme of the book was ‘Everything Sucks and Bad Things Happen to Everyone: The Story.’ There’s also a character that I immediately was suspicious of, and it ended up being valid, as there is child rape/molestation in the book. Not only was I not really expecting that, but it just seems so out of place and shoved in book that it was especially jarring. And then later on, the author literally almost victim blames the victim??? Or at the very least makes the victim almost blame themselves. Which, often can happen, but it just disturbed and bothered me so much.
Now that I’ve been done with it for a few days I decided to sit on it to really think about it. I looked at goodreads and it really does seem to have a huge split when it comes to its popularity. It’s either hate, or love.
I don’t know if I really would want to recommend it to anyone, even with the FL Swamp Aesthetic™ unless they were just really sort of okay with the ‘everything sucks even when you try hard’ theme.
And ultimately this book has made me want to write an actual Alice in Wonderland, swamp-style.
I give Swamplandia! 2/5 Alligator Death Rolls
[Like with some of the other books, there’s at least some good quotes in the book, have two]
“Underneath my mother, dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousands gallons of filtered water.”
“The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it.”