Study Guide

Alligator Bayou Alligator

By Donna Jo Napoli


Alligators show up a lot in this story—they're even in the title of the book—which lets us know right away that, just like the swamps they live in, there's more than initially meets the eye going on with these bad boys. Think about it: alligators are rough, tough, and scary, and their giant jaws snap with sharp teeth. So whenever we see them appear in our story, they're clueing us in that danger lurks somewhere nearby.

Let's look at the first time Calo sees an alligator. While walking through town, he sees a stuffed alligator head hanging above the saloon (2.82), like a warning sign or a trophy. Its ferocity frightens him, and makes him stay away for the saloon. And though nothing immediately bad happens after Calo first notices the alligator head, the message it sends—keep away and don't mess with the dude who runs this bar—comes back in full force later on, both when the saloon keep shows up to hassle Francesco about selling limoncello and when the mob forms. The stuffed alligator head, then, symbolizes how dangerous some of the people who hang out inside the saloon are.

The stuffed head represents something else, though, too. What's inside a stuffed alligator head? While we don't know the materials used, we know what's definitely not inside: a brain. In this way, the stuffed alligator head foreshadows the stupidity that will eventually come from the white townsfolk who drink inside the saloon, while commenting on the stupidity—or brainlessness—of racism and mob mentalities. The white people in this town are physically powerful, just like an alligator, but as a collective group lack insight and thoughtfulness when they act. It is, to say the very least, a dangerous combination.

The next alligator Calogero encounters is in the bayou during the hunt with Cirone, Charles, and Charles's buddies. It terrifies Calo and he thinks that Charles is dying when he's pulled under water, but though the reptile fights for a long time, it ends up outsmarted by the boys, and they kill it with a spear. Again we see the alligator demonstrating impressive physical strength while associated with limited brain capacity. Since the group of boys hunting and wrestling the gator is exclusively made up of kids who aren't white, again we can see the alligator symbolizing the imminent threat that racism poses in their lives. Interestingly enough, though, the boys—well, Charles anyway—conquer the swamp creature. Do you think this means that, at least in this case, the alligator also symbolizes their ability to overcome racism and racist forces?

When Calogero visits Joseph he tells him that he hates the giant reptile, and Joseph has an interesting reply. Joseph says:

"He can be ugly. He can be dangerous. But he is honest. He is who he is. You treat him with respect if you want a free life." (12.38)

Ugly? Yup. Dangerous? Absolutely. Honest? … Say what? Here's what we think Joseph is talking about. Everywhere people like Joseph and Calo—a.k.a. people who aren't white—turn, danger lurks. And while that's rough in its own right, it only gets trickier because it isn't always immediately clear. Remember how Francesco mistakes Dr. Hodge as an ally? And then Dr. Hodge ends up starting to whole debacle that culminates in Francesco and his family's murder? Yup—that's dishonesty for you. But while Dr. Hodge has been secretly waiting for an excuse to do some major damage to his Sicilian neighbors, an alligator leaves no doubt about its intention: it will gobble you up in a heartbeat if it gets the chance. And in lives so riddled with potential threats, this sort of honesty is to be appreciated, which is why Joseph draws Calo's attention to it.

So when Calo and his family join Charles and his family in eating the alligator at the graduation celebration, we can see it as a moment when, symbolically, two groups outcast by racism come together to tear it apart with their teeth. Banding together is key to rising up in an oppressive society after all, so it's fitting that alligator is what they eat together in this book.

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