I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.
It is never a good thing to judge a book by its cover but I was utterly charmed when this book landed in my mailbox. In many ways, the cover DOES reflect what goes on inside this book. SWAMPLANDIA! tells the story of 12-year-old Ava Bigtree and her family of alligator wrestlers. The Bigtree family operates a "roadside attraction" in the Florida wilderness where the biggest attraction (besides the alligator wrestling) is Ava's charismatic mother, Hilola Bigtree. When the family faces two tragedies back-to-back, the death of Hilola and the arrival of the flashy theme park competitor WORLD OF DARKNESS, the Bigtree family and their business begin to disintegrate. Ava's brother Kiwi runs off to the mainland to earn money to save the family business. Her older sister, Osceola, takes up with a ghost. Her father takes off to the mainland "on business" leaving the girls to fend for themselves. Ava must figure out how to save her family and their dream of SWAMPLANDIA!
There are many books out there that deal with families going through loss and adversity. I can't think of any others, however, that are set in a tourist trap in the Everglades. The setting is marvelous. More than anything, this is a coming of age story told from the points of view of Ava and her brother Kiwi. Kiwi must confront truths about the family business and his father while Ava must do the same while facing situations that no 12-year-old should ever have to deal with. All of this occurs in the midst of the very real grief this family is experiencing at the loss of wife and mother. It is a very moving book that ends so abruptly it leaves you frustrated and wanting more. I wasn't ready to leave the Bigtree family behind.
While there are comic moments in this book, this book is ultimately a tragic tale of how one family falls apart and tries to put itself together again. Their descent isn't pretty and Ava especially faces some pretty awful things. However, the story is very well done and the characters are excellent. I was reminded of the many roadside attractions I visited as a child and I was left to wonder what happened to them and the people who operated them.
BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. A wonderful coming of age story and family drama wrapped into one unique tale. It left me wanting more. Much more.