Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Website, Twitter, Insta)
Genre: literary fiction
Setting: North Carolina marsh/swamp
I read it as a(n): hardback
Source: public library
Length: 370 pp
Published by: Putnam (2018)
Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Beginning in the early 1950s, Kya Clark is known as the Marsh Girl in her tiny hometown of Barkley Cove, NC. Her family are dirt poor and live in a shack in the swamp, four kids and their parents all crammed into a tiny space. Kya’s father is an abusive drunk and, one by one, everyone starts leaving. First it was Kya’s two eldest siblings. Then her mother. Finally, her brother, Jodie, who was closest to her in age. Kya is about six at the time and she learns to keep the abusive drunk at bay, though eventually he, too, abandons her. Alone and penniless, Kya learns how to care for herself. Through the kindness of one Black family, Kya usually has enough to get by. A friend of Jodie’s teaches her how to read. Eventually, Kya blossoms into a beautiful woman, though her isolation and abandonment issues have made her exceedingly shy and eccentric.
When Chase Andrews, a well known young man in town, is found dead at the bottom of a lookout tower, the sheriff decides it looks like foul play and eventually arrests Kya, now in her early 20s, for his murder. What follows is a beautifully written story that weaves between the “present” 1969/1970 and the past, starting in 1952. Slowly, the two times merge, bringing Kya’s story into crisp focus.
I don’t usually read books that are wildly popular. I find the hype surrounding them is too often overreaction and the book itself falls flat. But! I. Fucking. Loved. This. Book! It was so, sooooooooooo good! I loved that Kya had a way to educate herself, having avoided school after the one day she attended and was mercilessly bullied. She was an uneducated hick – literally one of the swamp people – at first but learned to read with the help of Jodie’s friend, Tate. She closely studies the ecosystem of the marsh and becomes an expert in the field. And there is no sappy plot that has her turning suddenly into a sophisticated woman who moves to the big city where she is super popular and happy in society or any such tripe. She never loses her connection to her land. She never gets comfortable with people, and certainly not with crowds. It is sad only because she could have become an expert in the marsh ecosystem AND been a more chic person if the vast majority of the people in her life hadn’t walked out on her or had welcomed her into their community.
The underlying theme was one of tolerance and prejudice. It can be no coincidence that the only two people who truly loved and accepted Kya for herself, aside from Jodie, were Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, a Black couple from the outskirts of town. They helped her as they were able and as Kya allowed them. They stood by her during the worst times. They were never ashamed to be friendly or to be seen with her. Most of the other people in the book treated her with disdain and rejection, calling her swamp trash or telling their children not to go near her because she was dirty. So much for their vaunted Christian charity.
There were bright points throughout Kya’s life and the people she encountered. Tate was arguably the most important person in her life. Because he taught her how to read, she was able eventually to support herself with her deep knowledge of the marshes. Jumpin’ and Mabel helped her survive and always made sure she knew she could stay with them if she wanted to. The clerk at the store, who Kya thought was nosy, was actually helping her in ways Kya never knew. These kindnesses made the rejection and isolation Kya faced that much more painful.
More than anything, I think this book was a reflection on acceptance, hypocrisy, and redemption. I’m sure we all know a person who says they are accepting of everyone, but when faced with a challenge to that, shows they are anything but accepting at all. The people of Barkley Cove like to think they are kind and helpful but they are all quick to make assumptions about Kya based solely on the fact that she is poor. As if it were her fault every single person in her family took off and never seemed to give a thought about her afterwards. Kya made do, and she would have loved to have a friend or someone to care for her like a parent, but she was taught from a young age not to trust people because they will just hurt and abandon her. Kya is able to redeem herself in more ways than one over the course of the novel, from learning to read at the age of 14 to supporting herself through her painting and scientific observations, she shows those around her she is far more than just the Marsh Girl if they care to look deeper. The townsfolk also redeem themselves in an unexpected way, though by the time they figure things out, it is far too late to have a useful impact on Kya.
Overall, I thought this was a lovely novel and count myself among those who loved it. Seems like the feeling about this are black and white, which, strangely, is appropriate.