Every once in a while you come across a book that’s so engaging, so fresh and fierce, you can’t put it down until the last elegiac sentence tiptoes across the final page.
Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, is one of those books.
I heard Crawdads has been on the NYT Bestseller List for over a year. A natural cynic, I don’t put much stock in “best seller” anything.
So I checked this book out from my library to see what all the buzz is about. Brought it home yesterday afternoon.
I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. Finished at 1:44 a.m.
Set in rural North Carolina over a span of about 20 years, Where the Crawdads Sing is a wistful, bittersweet story about Catherine Danielle Clark, aka “Kya.” Also known as the Marsh Girl. The story centers on Kya’s young life as she navigates the wilds of North Carolina alone. It’s a masterful tale of love and loss. Abandonment and rejection. Loneliness. Hope and longing.
Powerful and poignant, Crawdads rolled around in my head all night. And most of today.
Crawdads clusters around two time frames, the 1950s and the late 1960s/1970. The chronology could easily come unglued in the hands of a lesser talent. But Owens’s story glides between one epoch and the next as naturally and seamlessly as the channels and lagoons of Kya’s marsh and the wild lands that bookend her life.
The story opens with six year-old Kya watching her Ma trudge away from the family’s marsh shack. Clutching a cardboard suitcase, Ma walks out of Kya’s life without a backward glance.
And so begins a lifetime of loss and loneliness for Kya.
Her siblings all leave the marsh too, including her closest brother, Jodie. We later learn that Kya’s father is abusive, to put it mildly, and Ma and the other children just couldn’t take it anymore. They walk out of Kya’s life one by one, leaving the six year-old alone with her father, who’s absent more than he’s home. When he’s home, he’s usually drunk. When he’s drunk, he’s mean. And violent.
What’s a six year old to do?
Kya does plenty.
Left to fend for herself, the little girl scratches out a subsistence by harvesting and selling mussels and smoked fish to her only real friend, “Jumper.” She learns how to keep a wood stove going, cook grits, steer Pa’s boat. She sleeps on a mattress on the shack’s front porch. Learns how to read the water, tides, birds, grasses and the native flora and fauna of her marsh.
Her only friends are the sea gulls.
Shy and remote, Kya is regarded as strange and odd by the townspeople during her occasional boat trips into town for supplies. She becomes adept at hiding, especially from the truant officer.
Kya raises herself, making do with second-hand clothing and other items collected by Jumper and his kindly wife, Mabel.
With only one day of schooling, Kya finally learns how to read with the help of her friend Tate. She also learns how to count past 29. Paint and collect feathers, shells, and mushrooms.
As a young adult, Kya is still regarded as wild and strange. She’s fiercely independent and private. Shy and retiring. More at home with the creatures of the sea and the marsh than with other people. She understands nature better than people. Humans bewilder, overwhelm, and disappoint.
They also walk out.
In fact, most of the townsfolk shun and ridicule “the Marsh Girl.” Except for her childhood friend Tate, who seems to understand her.
But he abandons her, too.
Longing for companionship but afraid to risk more heartbreak, Kya keeps mostly to herself, hoping against hope that Ma will some day walk down the lane and back into her life.
A voracious reader with a quick mind, Kya becomes a self-educated expert on marsh life. Her prodigious powers of observation, analytical skills and extensive specimen collections result in the publication of several books under her byline.
But she’s still alone. Solitary. Her self-imposed solitude is both a blessing and a curse.
Later, when the dead body of the town’s star quarterback and All American jerk, Chase Andrews, is found beneath a fire tower near the marsh, foul play is suspected. Kya is arrested and tried for murder. A handful of friends stand by her.
Marinaded in hauntingly beautiful, lyrical prose, Where the Crawdads Sing is a remarkable achievement. With its keen observations of nature and wildlife, Crawdads tells us as much about marsh life, ecology, and marine biology as it does human nature.
Lithe as a great blue heron and as luminescent as a Carolina sunset, Where the Crawdads Sing is a riveting tale of the human heart and its need for love, belonging, and connections. You can almost hear the gulls cawing. Taste the salt spray. And see the fireflies glow.
Two thumbs up.