by Karen Collins
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is at once history, nature, and poetry woven into emotionally charged fiction. Owens is the author of nonfiction books, Cry of the Kalahari, Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savanna, as well as articles based on her years of wildlife research. This is her first attempt at novel writing. Her beautiful prose takes you into the marsh where you taste the sea air and feel the fog touch your face.
The marsh is as much a character in this book as the people. It teems with life, from the lowly tadpole to magnificent blue herons who interact with the main character, Kya, and become significant to her survival and future. As Owens describes it: “Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”
For the first years of her life, Kya, the youngest of the five Clark children, has a mother. But she exits the scene early, and gradually so do all of her siblings. Kya yearns to know why she could not go with her mother or closest brother, Jodie. Left alone with her abusive father, she slowly discovers ways to reach his heart by taking on cooking and cleaning responsibilities. The story is set in an historically significant time period, primarily between 1952 and 1969. Kya’s father is a veteran of World War II, disabled in combat. Readers may wonder, as I did, if his drinking, rage, and violent nature are in part the result of PTSD or, at the least, a feeling of having failed in his military life.
Whatever the reasons, Kya’s father is pleased when she does the housework, but when she asks to fish with him, he discards the notion immediately: “You’re a girl.” Although Kya is smart enough to ultimately talk him into taking her, the scene is illustrative of society’s view of females in the 1950s. The period encompassed the nascent women’s rights and civil rights movements, and the reference to “Colored Town” is not fictional. During the time preceding and then during the civil rights movement, it was commonplace. Sadly, it described the segregated area where people of color were allowed to live. The setting for Where the Crawdads Sing is the marshlands of North Carolina, but these attitudes were not limited to Southern states.
As Kya and her father spend time fishing, he begins to respond with unprecedented civility, almost kindness. For about four years, father and daughter live in relative harmony. He teaches her to fish and navigate his small boat through the serpentine marsh waterways. During this interlude, she learns about the marsh, its inhabitants, the weather, the sea, and his family history. Kya describes that time as “just a thrown-in season. Low clouds parting. The sun splashing her world briefly, then closing up dark and tight-fisted again.”
The respite ends when a letter arrives from her mother. Kya wrestles with whether to open the letter or leave for her father. She knows if she opens herself, she cannot read the words. Ultimately, she leaves it for her father to find. Kya remembers the savage tirade that followed her mother’s departure, when her father burned all of her mother’s possessions. Instinctively, she senses danger and watches from a safe distance while he reads the letter. He angrily leaves with a bottle in tow and she knows he is reverting to binge drinking and his former abusive self. She never sees him again.
What follows is the riveting account of a young girl growing up without a family in an untamed world. Kya remembers what she has learned about the marsh and rather than receiving a formal education, she acquires a vast body of knowledge by observing nature. She gathers an extraordinary collection of feathers and shells that decorate the family’s rundown shack. Help also comes from unlikely sources, some of which she is never aware. Her brother’s friend Tate befriends her and teaches her to read. A cashier at a local business knows Kya can’t count change at her age and uses her own funds to overpay Kya when she makes change. Jumpin’ and Mabel, the marina owners who live in ‘colored town,’ quietly take on the role of her surrogate parents.
Kya understands from an early age that the townspeople of Barkley Cove consider her and her family to be swamp trash. The designation of social outcast follows her into young adulthood and threatens to influence the outcome of a trial in which she is accused of murder. No spoilers here, but those in the legal field may find some courtroom scenes in this section stretch reality.
The story line tackles financial hardship, abuse, mental illness, social shunning, and racial bias. However, the harshness is balanced by Owens’ masterful descriptions of the natural beauty Kya encounters in the marsh and by Kya’s confidence in her relationship with the marsh inhabitants. Owens’ career as a scientist and her devotion to nature is evident.
The first book Kya learns to read is A Sand County Almanac, which was published in 1949. Its author, Aldo Leopold, was an ecologist and conservationist who has been called “the father of wildlife conservation.” The first line of A Sand County Almanac reads, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” There is no more perfect description of Kya than one who cannot live without wild things. Whether she can live with other human beings and create a life apart from the marsh is another story.
Where the Crawdads Sing is an entertaining and engrossing read, but it goes far beyond that, if you let it. It imparts an insider’s knowledge of dragonflies, herons, tadpoles, and the vast array of marsh life, while also offering a troubling human story of abandonment and survival. Was Kya able to learn and remember such a quantity of facts about nature because her distractions were few? She had no television; her father had burned their only radio when her mother left. In her solitude, perhaps she was able to focus in a way nearly nonexistent in 2019.
Overall, Where the Crawdads Sing is a book I would recommend. While it is difficult to imagine a six-year-old child being as resourceful as Kya, Owens somehow makes this notion work. There will be many such musings, because Kya’s story will be with me for some time.