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