Study Guide

Alligator Bayou The Bayou and Swamp

By Donna Jo Napoli

The Bayou and Swamp

Have you read the discussion about alligators as symbols yet? If you haven't, click on over to read that first. We promise it will be helpful in deciphering this symbol, and we're totally down to wait.

Did you read it? Good. Welcome back. Now let's dive into the swamp (symbolically, of course—literally would be super gross).

Okay. So you know how alligator is in the title of the book and, as such, we're clued into the fact that alligators just might play a pretty symbolic role in the text? Well the same goes for bayou. And in case you didn't know, bayous are the "marshy outlet[s] of a lake or river"—and yes, that means they're pretty darn swamp-like in their own right. So for our purposes with this book, the swamp and the bayou are pretty much the same thing.

And here's the thing about swamps and bayous: you can't see what's below the surface in them. These are virtually—if not perfectly—stagnant spots of water, often with algae growing thick on the surface, and other times muddy brown . And because of this, they remind us to look for deeper—or hidden—meanings as we read.

For instance, when Calo joins Charles and some other boys to hunt alligators in the swamp, we know that danger is imminent. After all, they're just some kids on a skiff wrestling an alligator all by themselves at night—there are practically a million ways that things could go majorly wrong, right? But because these dudes are in the swamp, we have to ask ourselves what else this little fishing trip (to put it mildly) represents and, when we do, we can see that it also represents friendship and camaraderie. If we think about this in the context of the alligator as a symbol for racism (which we are totally going to do since you already read up on the alligator as a symbol), then we can also see that this coming together of Black kids and Sicilian kids is a way to combat racism, to refuse the isolation and dehumanization that racism insists upon.

The bayou and swamps don't just lead us toward happy hidden meanings, though, and it is fitting that Calo has to cross the swamp to find his way to Joseph when he is being chased by the dogs and ferocious mob at the end of the book. Here the murkiness of the terrain Calo crosses mirrors the confusion and chaos he feels as he flees the scene of his family's certain death. It is a complicated moment for Calo, fraught with difficult emotions—he feels guilty for leaving his family, but also knows there's nothing he can do to stop the mob—and as he crosses the swamp, we understand that his path to safety is about as messy as they come.

Importantly, bayou comes from a Choctaw word—bayuk—meaning small stream. What this means, is that even in the very word bayou there is more than meets the eye. It isn't just a name some dude came up with one day—it's a word that originated in the language of the people who used to live in the area, but who have subsequently been forced out by white folks. (For more on the history of white folks and Native Americans, click here.) In other words, when we pause to consider just the word bayou, we are clued into the fact that racism lurks right below the surface, which is true for Calo and his friends and family throughout this book as well.

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