- What: Where the Crawdads Sing
- Who: Delia Owens
- Pages: 384, hard cover
- Genres: Contemporary fiction and mystery
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
I try to title every review after a pop culture reference — usually song lyrics — some of which are more obvious than others. The minute I finished Where the Crawdads Sing I knew I’d be choosing a song by one of two badass women: Martina McBride or Carrie Underwood. Both women are known for singing songs about wronged women who are often misunderstood and who take control of their destiny. Main character Kya Clark, aka the “Marsh Girl,” would be the perfect muse for a McBride or Underwood hit.
The Marsh Girl is the epitome of what happens when judgment innate in humans runs rampant. Author Delia Owens captures this societal flaw beautifully in her story that is still sitting pretty on the New York Times best seller list. That’s 38 weeks, people. Not too shabby. It’s easy to understand why when you read the lyrical ways Owens describes nature, specifically the marsh; the plight of a young girl who only ever yearned for some company; and how our judgments really could ruin someone’s life. Owens captures it all in this coming-of-age meets whodunit tale.
The Marsh Girl has always been a mystery to the people of Barkley Cove, N.C., so much so that she can’t be trusted. When former high school hero Chase Andrews is found dead in 1969 with few clues left behind, all fingers start pointing toward her. She’s swamp trash after all. But really she’s just a misunderstood girl who’s been on her own since a child, foraging for mussels and whatever else could sustain her in a marsh shanty. Left behind by her siblings, mother, and abusive father, Kya has managed to survive by living off little but the land.
After her friend Tate teaches her to read, she becomes fascinated with learning the secrets behind her surroundings and the creatures she lives among. She becomes a famous naturalist who finally finds her way. Her intelligence mixed with a beauty not possessed by the other local girls attract an unthinkable man, which leads Kya down an unfortunate path. It’s confusing and dangerous and will only increase the suspicions about her, especially after Andrews’ death.
“Why should the injured, the still bleeding, bear the onus of forgiveness?” — Where the Crawdads Sing
These suspicions by the locals are what make this book so fascinating — not to mention important. Owens uses the locals’ gossip and finger pointing to prove just how powerful our judgments and prejudices can be. Not only do they drive the mystery, but they also prompt abandonment and immense loneliness. Without explicitly saying it, Owens eludes to the fear mongering these attitudes can elicit because, of course, if you’re not following the “norm,” you simply can’t be trusted.
There’s a reason why I marked this novel as contemporary fiction rather than historical. It may take place in the 1950s and 1960s, but unfounded prejudice is prevalent in 2019. How often do we turn our noses up at somehow who lives slightly different from us? I have no doubt that a story like this one could easily happen today, making Where the Crawdads Sing far more looking glass than a peek into the past.
“I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.” — Where the Crawdads Sing
Without getting too deep into societal flaws and problems (let’s be real: we could talk about that all day), this book is full of intrigue and simply captivates. I read the majority of it to and from a bachelorette party in New Orleans, but continuously throughout the trip, I found myself sneaking up to my room to squeeze in a chapter. Needed to wait for a girl to get out of the shower? No worries; it was an excellent excuse to read a few more clues to the Andrews’ murder. I had to know Kya’s fate and the answers to this mystery.
My curiosity may have been piqued for most of the book, but alas, nothing’s perfect. I must admit the first quarter of the book was a bit slow, which bumped this megastar novel down to four flames. There was a need for this, though. Owens couldn’t immediately jump into the juicy stuff. Kya had a complex life that needed a firm foundation. Without that, Owens wouldn’t have done justice to the richness of Kya’s life or to her struggles.
How can a reader really appreciate the main character’s self-sufficiency without the detail of why it was necessitated? How can a reader fully understand the naturalism portrayed through Kya’s eyes without the strong and meticulous descriptions of her surroundings? We could also never comprehend how she relates human interactions to those in nature without this background. Even if it meant some time before takeoff, this runway was needed.
“Female fireflies draw in strange males with dishonest signals and eat them; mantis females devour their own mates. Female insects, Kya thought, know how to deal with their lovers.” — Where the Crawdads Sing
While I enjoyed the latter half more because the mystery and intrigue really picked up, Rachel Rosenblit from the Washington Post took issue with it, noting a sharp contrast in the writing.
*Spoiler alert ahead*
About three-fourths through the book, Kya finds herself in jail and in a courtroom, and Rosenblit had some critiques for Owens’ portrayal of these scenes:
“It’s here that Owens’s writing, like her protagonist, seems ripped from its comfort zone,” Rosenblit wrote. “Don’t get me wrong, Owens crafts a compelling court case, with twisty interrogations and loudly overruled objections, all the makings of good legal drama. But the richness of Kya’s inner life, so evocative in earlier chapters, seems absent in the courtroom. For such an astute observer of living things, having spent years mesmerized by the feathers of night herons and mating patterns of bullfrogs, there’s little observation of the fresh humanity around her.”
I agree that the writing takes a turn and contrasts sharply from the preceding text. I would bet that Owens intentionally did this. Not only is Kya’s life now in the hands of a jury, but she’s completely out of her comfort zone. Without being around the gulls, the water, the insects, and the palmettos, Kya can no longer see life with the same perspective. If she can’t see and feel those things that make her happiest and most comfortable, she certainly can’t describe her new surroundings, nor can she comprehend human existence in the same way. She’s out of her element, and Owens depicts that in the writing.
And if it is intentional, Owens deserves extra credit for not only consciously changing her writing style in the midst of a book but also for the skill that takes. So yes, maybe it feels like we’re getting two slightly different books within Where the Crawdads Sing — though to me it seems as one — but they’re two books I’m more than happy to read.
“Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts.” — Where the Crawdads Sing