Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

Delia Owens’ bestselling debut novel, Where the crawdads sing, is a problematical novel, as my reading group discovered – and yet, I couldn’t help being emotionally engaged. It reminded me a little of a childhood favourite, Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost. My heart went out to Owen’s protagonist, Kya, the maligned, ignored, Marsh Girl, and I loved the writing about the North Carolina marshland. But, intellectually, I had to work to defend my enjoyment, which I’ll aim to share here.

“in the end, that is all you have, the connections”

I’ll start with the obvious, a summary of the plot. The main narrative runs from 1952 to 1970, and is told in two chronologies that eventually meet. The novel tells the story of Kya, who, in 1952, is six when her Mum and, soon after, her siblings leave home. Four years later, when she’s ten, her father also departs, leaving her alone, in their North Carolina marsh shack. She can’t read, has no money, and few skills. But, she’s an intelligent, resourceful little girl, and, with the help of a few kind people, she makes a life – albeit a lonely one – for herself. The novel commences, however, in 1969 with the discovery of the body of a young man, Chase Andrews, who is a local football hero. Was it an accident or was he murdered? The second chronology, then, is a crime story, following the investigation of this death through to the court case. You can probably guess where the two chronologies meet.

Owens manages this structure skilfully, drawing us into Kya’s life, and how and why she develops into the person she is in 1970, while, simultaneously, slowly building suspense by recounting the details of the investigation. The writing is lush and evocative, ensuring that we engage with Kya and her struggle to survive, her increasing loneliness and her desperation to connect with others. We see her turn to nature and wildlife to learn about life, as well as to provide herself with sustenance and give her a minimal income (by selling fish and mussels, for example).

This is nature writing at its best, with stunning descriptions of the marsh, and the birds, fish and insects that inhabit it, but it is also eco-fiction, with occasional allusions to development. Tate, a young man who befriends Kya (and provides her with a much-needed connection) tells her:

They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.”

The marsh is Kya’s family; it is what, in the absence of family, forms her:

She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.

It is hard, as a reader, not to care about Kya. Will she find the connections she so badly wants – “Being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed” – and will they stick?

“it’s usually the trap that gets foxed”

However, it’s easy to pick holes in the book. Kya’s survival (given her youth) and her development into an educated young woman (given she only spent one day at school) can stretch credulity. Many of the characters feel stereotyped, from the good “colored” people, who put themselves out to help Kya, to the prejudiced townspeople, who reject and exclude her (as they do all marsh people). “Barkley Cove”, writes Owens, “served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried”. And, if you don’t like your heartstrings being obviously pulled, you may not engage with Kya at all.

All this makes it problematical, because it’s one of those books that whether you love or hate depends largely on what sort of reader you are, what you like to read, and/or how you read this particular book. There are many ways to read Where the crawdads sing – a crime story, a romance, a coming-of-age story, historical fiction, a modern fairy-story or allegory, even, to name a few. Some of these ways demand more realism than others, and expose holes which are irrelevant to other ways. It is one of these other ways that appeals to me.

This way is to read it more like a fairy story or allegory, as a story about the triumph of the maligned, a comeuppance for the underdog. If you read it this way, the stereotyping of the minor characters, and the improbability of Kya’s survival and achievements, serve to emphasise the challenges faced by the underdog. It is hard to explain what I mean without giving away the ending, but I’ll try.

Throughout the novel, we are not only reminded of the prejudice and mistreatment of Kya (as representative of the marsh people) but are also aware of the ostracism of “colored people” as they were called then. Kya turns to nature to learn about life. Early in the novel, when the “colored” Jumpin’ warns her about Social Services looking for her, friend Tate tells her to “hide way out where the crawdads sing”:

Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

One of Kya’s main challenges is to work out the differences between what she observes in nature and in human behaviour:

“In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.”

These two quotes – among others – hint at the novel’s underlying idea, which is that it’s not only “critters” who are “wild”, that human beings will be ruthless too. Exploring this ruthlessness in its natural and human manifestations, and how Kya navigates it, is a major theme of this book – and explains why Owens has written it the way she has. The resolution is deeply satisfying (albeit I didn’t love the device used to achieve it).

Where the crawdads sing is a thoughtful read for those who feel passionate about the maligned of this world. It is also a glorious lovesong to the marshland. I’m glad my reading group scheduled it.

Delia Owens
Where the crawdads sing
London: Corsair, 2018
ISBN: 9781472154637 (Kindle ed.)

58 thoughts on “Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

  1. I can see why you were reminded of GSP’s Limberlost, ST.
    Does your reading group feature here as some of your followers ? – I’m wondering if they have their own reviewing blogs that feature differing opinions .. 😀

      • Yes, the book group did it. We were using Zoom, and the presenter provided a PowerPoint slide show about the marshes. I don’t actually remember the discussion. But I know I loved the descriptions of the natural environment, and hated the modern plot. I won’t go into rant mode about the latter, I’d hate to spoil the story for others!

  2. I think you’re right; I did read it as a kind of fairy story. Sometimes in those stories the person who has worked to learn something is rewarded, as Kya is rewarded for learning about her fellow creatures in the liminal living space of the marshes.

    • Haha, Denise. I completely understand that decision just as I understand those who feel the opposite. It’s a provocative book for readers I think which makes it great for discussion.

  3. Our reading group read the book before the pandemic. Most members liked the book because of the descriptions of the marshes. I agree that there was magic to the marshes that felt like a sometimes grim fairy story.

  4. I abandoned this book… I couldn’t stand the flowery prose… but I think I’m in minority over this book because people tend to love it. I think I also came to it knowing the author, her husband and stepson had been accused of a murder similiar to the one in the book and that coloured my perspective on it.

  5. Thank you for the review. I’ve been wary of tackling it as I suspected it was overly sentimental. Not sure if I’ll try it but you give me a good idea of what I’d be in for, good and bad.

  6. This is one I’ve been avoiding but I may, in the end, read it, just to be “in the know”. It does sound, at least, like a quick read.

    Nonetheless, i adored GotL…I’ve been tossing around possibilities for a reread of a children’s favourite for this summer, and I think this would be a perfect match. Summer before last, I discovered just HOW much other writing she did (as an adult, I discovered Freckles and one of her other novels, but that was it)…such a lot of nature writing and other narratives. The reference library here has a load of material, but I didn’t get to investigating before things closed up the following winter. As a person, she also seems fascinating…and I believe there is at least one biography to explore too.

    • Ye, Buried, I discovered more about Porter earlier this year when I read one of her essays. I did read Freckles when I read GOTL but it has never stuck in the same way. I’d love to read a biography of her.

      And yes, I crawdads is a quick read!

  7. I’ve completely avoided this book because many reviewers have pointed out that although Kya lives in a swamp and has no formal education, she speaks in perfect English while the black people who live nearby all speak in a dialect to suggest they are uneducated. If they’re all — Kya and the African American people — uneducated, one can’t speak like she’s a poet while non-white people come off as “slow.”

    • That’s partly true Melanie, but not fully. And I’d be giving some things away if I explained more. Also, not all whites speak perfectly so it’s not quite as simple as some reviewers say. It was mentioned in my reading group.

        • We had a pretty good conversation about it Melanie, though I always feel the next day, that I could have said this or that, to keep it going! It is a meaty book for discussion – and not just about themes which is what most people say, and it irritates me a bit, when call something “a good reading group book”. For me a good reading group book is one that offers more to discuss re language, style, structure, genre, tone, about why the author did this or that and what does that choice mean, what difference does it make, and so on.

        • Didn’t mean to irritate you by calling it a good reading group book. All I meant was it lends itself to conversation. I’ve been in many book club meetings during which we ran out of things to talk about within 10 minutes.

        • Oh no, you didn’t, Melanie, as I didn’t read your comment in the way I often react to! 10 minutes is pretty minimal. Sounds like those groups need help choosing books! One of the questions we ask when a book is suggested (a book we don’t know well or are unsure of) is “does it have enough to talk about” and the recommender needs to justify their suggestion! We are a tough group. Our discussions pretty well always last an hour. Occasionally it might die down around the 45 minutes mark, and sometimes we have to call supper time!

        • Ah, I see! Usually the books we struggled with that left little to discuss were those odd, whimsical books that didn’t appear to have reason for what happens, such as Miranda July’s The First Bad Man. I mean, a therapist pees behind a divider, while talking to patients, into a used Chinese food container. What even is that? It sounds like you have wonderful friends, and I must confess I am jealous.

    • Also. I don’t think the non-whites come off as slow, but simply as speaking their own form of English. I think there’s a difference? (btw I don’t like to use “non-white” because it defines people with reference to whiteness?)

  8. I know that most people have read and loved this one and yet, I am still not tempted. Your review gave me a much clearer picture of what to expect and now I am quite sure it isn’t for me. Being a sceptical, down-to-earth nature person, I wouldn’t be able to ignore the less realistic aspects of the story.

    • Fair enough Stargazer. I would never try to convince people to read it. I will say, though, that I was surprised that one of the big realists in our group liked it with just a demur about the ending and that was more to do with character consistency than realism.

  9. I appreciate your more thoughtful read and take on this story Sue. I certainly approached this as an historical fiction/mystery story and found it lacking in both contexts. But I did enjoy some of the nature writing early one before getting too frustrated with the whole thing.

    After reading Kim’s comment, I found a New Yorker article from 2010 about the incident she referred too. It’s very long and I only got halfway through before going out last night, but it was enlightening.

    • Thanks very much Brona, I will read that later. I’m on a staycation at the moment so just catching up with comments quickly in between German movies! One reading group member felt she’d heard something odd but none of us knew any details.

    • I have read the article now though did get a bit bogged down in the he said-she said, but there’s probably at least some truth to the strong-arm tactics used by Mark Owens.

      I’m not sure it relates a lot to this story, though I can see people might draw some additional conclusions from it that they wouldn’t without that history.

      • I finally got to the end too. Like you I thought a long bow was being drawn, but her tendency to romanticise/patronise ‘the other’ in her non fiction obviously continued into her fiction.

        • I found it interesting too, Brona, in terms of Irma Gold’s The breaking, and the actions of western wildlife volunteers in developing nations. It’s such a complex situation. Gold just touched on it – enough to suggest it was one of the things we need to think about, rather than to tell us how she thinks we should think.

  10. Thanks for your thoughts on this book, Sue. I was away in Singapore in early January during the fires and just before COVID struck. And I admit to being carried away by the narrative. I love landscapes and wildness, so I loved the descriptions of the marshes. I agree that some of the plot points stretched belief a bit, especially some of the ending bits, but I was willing to go with it just for the sake of a good story.
    There has been a lot of discussion of this book by others, and while many have loved it, many haven’t. So maybe it’s one of those polarising books. I wouldn’t mind writing a book that sold as many as this one, even if it was polarising …

    • Thanks Karen. Lovely to have your perspective. I really enjoyed the narrative too and loved the description of the marshes. I love gritty realism but I’m not above a bit of stereotyped good versus bad every now and then. There were things that irritated me in it, but overall, I was there!

  11. I can’t say I wouldn’t read it, I listen to lots of pretty average books, and while I think the bias that Melanie points out would probably be a deal breaker for me, I can see how it might work as a fable. There is one huge absence though which stands out to me as an Australian reader, and that is the original inhabitants.

    • I don’t expect it’s for you Bill. But re the original inhabitants, I did think about that too, but she does mention them in an interview, and it made sense to me. For the story she was telling, I think any reference would have been tokenistic, plus I think this Outer Banks area was visited more than permanently occupied by First Nations Americans. (I have visited this region of North Carolina … Kitty Hawk, Ocracoke etc … but am by no means an expert.)

  12. Hi Sue, I loved your review, and I liked the novel in parts. As you say the nature parts are the best parts; they kept my interest My book club gave it mixed reviews with a fair amount of criticism.

    • Thanks Meg … I always love hearing what other bookgroups think about books. The description of the setting was so beautiful wasn’t it.

      It is interesting to see how different readers respond to different books. Can you often tell in your group who will like what? I think we can in ours – with about 65-70% accuracy!

  13. Glad you’ve enjoyed it so thoroughly, WG. I’m afraid I couldn’t engage, not because I don’t like my heartstrings being pulled. 🙂 Reading it like a fairy tale didn’t come to mind either cause the tone is serious and the story is depicted in realism.

    On another note, have you seen The Father? Don’t miss it. Anthony Hopkins’s Oscar is well-deserved.

    • Fair enough Arti. I can understand that completely. Fairy tale isn’t quite the right word, nor is allegory, but it’s in that sense for me because of the stereotyping and the stretching of credulity, despite the grounding in realism.

      As for The father, yes, I’ve seen that, and agree. Have seen three dementia movies this year and all have been different and interesting for their approach. Hopkins was excellent. Loved Olivia Colman, too.

  14. I was in the minority for this book – I couldn’t stand it (and only finished it because my book group read it). I found the plot to be all rather obvious, and at the same time far-fetched, and the writing to be so overblown – I kept wondering if I was reading the same book that others were raving about?!

    • Fair enough Kate. It’s interesting that what some people think is overblown writing others love! I have been to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and I just loved the description of the landscape and critters!

      The plot was obvious in general, but i wasn’t sure, for example, which way the court case was going to go, and what would happen after that. Certainly it was pretty obvious which way the relationships would go!

  15. I loved this book. Yes her early survival is a bit far fetched, BUT THIS IS A STORY and the author sets the rules!!
    Kya lived alone surrounded by nature learned from nature and protected herself like she learned from nature.

    • Haha Monica, thanks for commenting. I like your philosophy that “this is a story and the author sets the rules”. I largely agree with you – and am pretty good at suspending disbelief. However, I can hear many readers saying that, yes, the author sets the rules, but I don’t have to agree with them. In other words, yes, the author sets the rules, but like all rules you have to agree with them!

      In this case, I was conscious that she was pushing it, but I was prepared to go with her. Strange things do happen, and I agree it is fiction!!

  16. I agree. I wrote a critique of this book and referred to it as allegory or fantasy because reality being what it is, Kya would have been fished out of the marsh and fostered. Perhaps to Jumpin’ and his wife. The theme in this case subverts the plot, or the plot serves the theme. The writing, the imagery, the themes of isolation, integrity, originality and sincerity in the face of abuse and societal artificiality, of alcoholism and despair and lost dreams are so Faulknerian and truly southern that they need a Kya to convey them with any solicitude. We can tolerate the ugliness of prejudice and abandonment because Kya is worth rooting for. She survives like the creatures of the marsh and beyond. I think the credulity can be stretched because the character warrants it. Dying to see the movie.

    • Thanks Jeanne … I’m glad you agree, and appreciate your more local knowledge to mine. If you don’t read it this way, you have to discount it altogether and I think that would do a disservice to what Owens wants to say. I like “I think credulity can be stretched because the character warrants it.”

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