Where the Crawdads Sing|
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2018, 384 pp, HC, $26.00
Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist and coauthor of three nonfiction book. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel and I hope not her last. This book is beautifully written, haunting and sad at times; it is a coming of age story and a murder mystery.
Catherine "Kya" Clark lives in a remote wetland community in North Carolina during the 1950's and '60's. She and her family are considered white trash and Kya from the age of six is referred to as "The Marsh Girl" by the respectable town's folk. The story begins with the murder of Chase Andrews in 1969. Chase and Kya had a brief relationship as young adults. We are then transported back to Kya as a child, watching her mother walk away in her favorite alligator shoes and carrying a suitcase. Kya at six doesn't understand the abandonment or why. She hopes for her mother's return. As she gets older, her siblings also disappear, wandering away from her abusive alcoholic father. Kya begins to forget their names and faces. Her only companion is the marsh: "Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother."
Switching back and forth from the '50's of Kya's youth to the 1970's murder trial Owens lyrically describes Kya's coming of age in the marsh, alone after her father finally disappears she learns to take care of herself. Her one foray to school leads to embarrassment and anguish. Kya retreats into her solitude. She befriends "Jumpin" the owner of a gas and bait shop. Because he is black he doesn't shun the Marsh Girl, and she is able to sell him mussels in order to buy the small amount of groceries and gas she needs to survive. In this way Owens delves into the racial tensions of the time. Owens describes "Colored Town" where Kya visits on two occasions. She also befriends Tate, a boy a few years older then she is, he is kind to her and teaches her to read; and he is fascinated by her collections and drawings of feathers, shells and other marsh flora and fauna.
There is a definite tension throughout the novel. There is a genuine if at times too obvious tug of war between good and evil. Bouncing between the present and past Owens at times lost a bit of her poetic quality, however this seems pointed. The trial phase itself is tense, and I was surprised that this feral girl actually survived being caged up for so long without losing her mind. I was satisfied with the ending even if some might think it was a little too well wrapped up. I was also happily surprised by the last twist.
Having grown up on the marsh in New England, I could relate to some of Kya's childhood experiences, watching herons and gulls, studying crabs, plucking mussels. Owens obvious extensive experience as a wildlife scientist lends to the wonderful in depth descriptions, and her talent as a writer left me engrossed. This book has left a lasting impression and I will look forward to Delia Owens next novel.