What can I say about Where the Crawdads Sing that hasn’t been said before? For four years you’ve heard the hype; you’ve seen the movie (or at least the trailer); you may have even heard about the controversy surrounding the author.
And you still haven’t read it? Okay, let me convince you.
First, I’m still thinking about it days after finishing, always a good sign. It’s the characters: Kya the Marsh Girl and the two boys in her life, Tate and Chase. Kya is complex, self-aware, with a sharp and observant mind. She’s a self-taught naturalist and artist, and she basically brings herself up. Tate and Chase are complicated as well, each dealing with his own circumstances and shortcomings.
And then there’s the marsh, clearly the main character. The lagoons, the sea, the sky; the herons, the birds, the frogs; the shells, the ferns, the mushrooms, the scent and sounds… They’re all lovingly portrayed by author Delia Owens and we come to love the marsh, too, through the eyes and mind of Kya.
Where the Crawdads Sing is fiction, a mystery (the book opens with two boys finding Chase’s dead body), a coming-of-age story, and a girl meets boys story. But the sum of all those parts adds up to so much more. Crawdads is two books in one: a solid murder mystery on one level and a glorious ode to nature on the other.
Owens is a naturalist and conservationist and the author of several nonfiction books with titles like Secrets of the Savanna and Cry of the Kalahari. Her respect for nature comes through in beautiful passages on almost every page. I don’t often use the word ‘lyrical’ in a review but it fits here. She takes you right into the heart of the marsh and mud and helps you see the glory of it all.
Everyone leaves, that’s the lesson Kya learns by the time she’s six years old. First some older siblings, then her Ma, in a wrenching scene, then her closest brother Jodie, who at least apologizes to her before he goes. They’ve all abandoned their home – a run-down shack in the middle of a North Carolina marsh – headed toward a world with electricity, running water and indoor toilets.
Kya pines for her Ma and for a long time she believes she’ll come back. But Ma could only take so much of her mean and violent drunken gambler of a husband. Aside from a brief time when he takes a slight interest in Kya, taking her fishing, teaching her about their boat and the marsh, he’s a non-factor in her life. When he doesn’t come back after a couple months away Kya knows she’s truly alone.
Imagine growing up from a child to a teenager and young adult on your own. Hungry, dirty, and uneducated. Not starving, though, because you do what you have to do. In Kya’s case she trades the mussels she digs up and the fresh smoked fish she prepares for gas and provisions with Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel. They’re a Black couple who run a little gas station / store on the water. They know Kya’s dad and notice his absence. When Kya starts coming around by herself, they help her out with favors – clothes and other supplies donated through their church. Mabel guides Kya when she has her first menstrual period, the girl has no idea at all. Jumpin’ and Mabel are the best people in the book and I loved all their interactions with Kya.
Reading Crawdads, it’s easy to lose yourself in a fantasy of living wild with no supervision, sleeping outside on a private beach, exploring sheltered coves and hidden lagoons, and collecting natural treasures. Talking to the gulls like a Disney princess talks to birds and woodland creatures.
But in real life Kya is lonely and hungry for physical contact. She learns about the birds and the bees by observing the birds, bees, and all the other life around her. She sees how the females of the species attract and react to the males. She takes notes, ever the naturalist. But while she gets it on a scientific level, real life is different. Her heart and her body react to the boys. It’s heartbreaking, how even the simple touch of Mabel taking her hand fulfills a deep need in her.
Kya endures and becomes a stunningly beautiful woman. She has to take the boat into town now and then for supplies, so she sees the other townspeople including the wealthy, handsome, and charming Chase. He notices her, too, and they end up in a secret relationship.
Kya has another man in her life, Tate, who used to be Jodie’s friend. He’s gentle and kind and after some time (Kya’s like a feral cat that needs patience and coaxing) she allows him to teach her to read. He brings her books and helps to expand her world. He encourages her naturalist and artistic sides and tells her, honestly, that she knows more about the marsh and its inhabitants than any of his professors or other experts.
Between Chase and Tate, Kya gets her first tastes of the lies men can tell, their broken promises and cowardice. These are hard lessons for anyone, but especially for Kya. You don’t blame her for being guarded and angry.
Crawdads alternates between Kya’s story – her years in the marsh, her encounters with Tate and Chase – and the current day investigation into Chase’s death. If you haven’t guessed, Kya’s a suspect.
There’s much more, but I don’t want to spoil things. Read this book to be transported to an unfamiliar place and time. Read it to be inspired about our natural world from the great sea and sky to tiny shells and feathers. Read it to experience empathy, understanding, outrage, sadness, and relief. Where the Crawdads Sing is a worldwide phenomenon for a reason. It’s not a perfect book but it struck a chord in me and millions others. Join us!