January Read of the Month: “Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens

Delia Owens (photo by Dawn Marie Tucker)

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

With gorgeous imagery and breathtaking detail, Delia Owens perfectly captures the exquisite song of the North Carolina coastal marsh and all its creatures in her debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing. Not since Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides has there been a love song to the low country as poignant. And just as Conroy’s characters broke our hearts, readers will share the pain of Kya Clark, a young girl abandoned by her family in the marshland.

This ten-year-old child earns our respect for her resilience and resourcefulness as she manages to survive on her own: “Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.” She learns about life by watching the creatures around her, from gulls to fireflies, gathering “[w]onders and real-life knowledge she would’ve never learned in school.”

The novel drifts back and forth through time from the 1969 mystery of how Chase Andrews died in the swamp to the 1950s as Kya watches her siblings, her mother, and her father walk away, one by one, leaving her to fend for herself. Scorned by local townspeople as “white trash” and nicknamed “The Marsh Girl,” Kya yearns for and yet fears connection. On her one day in school, she is taunted, resulting in her hiding from social service workers who later try to locate her. From a distance, she watches a troop of girlfriends, whose “squeals made Kya’s silence even louder”: “Their togetherness tugged at her loneliness, but she knew being labeled as marsh trash kept her behind the oak tree.”

Kya’s tenuous link to the outside world comes through Jumpin’ and Mabel, the black family that runs a bait and gas business. Kya catches and sells mussels to Jumpin’ in exchange for grits and gas for the little boat her father left behind. Mabel brings Kya hand-me-down clothes so the child has something to wear.

Two men also find their way into Kya’s isolated life in the marsh. The first, Tate, loves the marsh creatures as much as she does. He earns the right to approach the reclusive girl by leaving her the gift of a thin black feather:

To most it would have looked ordinary, maybe a crow’s wing feather. But she knew it was extraordinary for it was the “eyebrow” of a great blue heron, the feather that bows gracefully above the eye, extending back beyond her elegant head. One of the most exquisite fragments of the coastal marsh, right here. She had never found one but knew instantly what it was, having squatted eye to eye with herons all her life.

A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time, like a predacious bridesmaid. And yet, on rare occasions she hunts on the wing, darting and diving sharply, swordlike beak in the lead.

Only a devoted naturalist like Owens could describe the marsh’s creatures with such exacting poetic detail.

True friendship grows between Kya and Tate over the years as he teaches her to read and brings her books. Eventually, though, Tate leaves for college. Once again Kya feels abandoned. By studying science textbooks on her own, she learns the proper names for all life forms in her beloved marsh. As a child, she watched her artistic mother paint, so it feels natural to her to take up the brushes herself to paint the plants, insects, and shells she has known all her life.

The second young man to enter Kya’s life is Chase Andrews, the town’s golden boy and former quarterback. Over a long courtship, Chase wins Kya’s trust. Yet he never accompanies her to town or introduces her to his friends or parents. When he is found dead near the fire tower, of course, the first person the town points to as the likely murderer is the Marsh Girl—if it was murder and not an accident. The mystery surrounding Chase’s death clouds the story from the first page to the last. Owens deftly delivers a conclusion that is both surprising and inevitable.

Part romance, part mystery, part love song to the natural world, Where the Crawdads Sing is, in the end, a story about two of the most basic instincts, the instinct to survive, and the equally strong yearning humans have to form relationships with others. This novel truly ranks as one of the best releases in 2018. Pitch-perfect, it excels in every way: originality of characters, faithful rendering of a unique setting, and language that is somehow both lush and straightforward.

Delia Owens is the co-author of three bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa, including Cry of the Kalahari and Secrets of the Savanna. She won the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing and has been published in many magazines and journals. She currently lives in Idaho. Owens says she set the novel in the coastal marsh because as a girl, canoe camping in the Okefenokee Swamp with her mother familiarized her with the region. As an adult, Owens has spent much of her life in isolated places, experiences she drew upon to create Kya.

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