Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing

By Delia Owens

Putnam     2018
384 pages     Literary

Despite some implausibility, which my book club friends were happy to point out at book club last night, I absolutely loved Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Primarily, I was entranced by the descriptions of the marshlands of the Outer Banks and how Kya Clark learned to live by herself and become an expert in the life of the marsh.

When Kya was a small child, her mother walked away from the shack in the North Carolina marsh where the family lives, unable to endure her abusive husband any longer. All the children leave as well, leaving Kya alone with her drunken father. When her father leaves for good, Kya must fend for herself. As she grows, she becomes a sort of mystical character to the residents of the small nearby village. Called “the marsh girl”, she successfully is able to fend off attempts to get her to go to school, get sent to an orphanage, or in any way become part of the community.

As much as Kya hides from society, she misses human contact. Tate, a brilliant young man of the village, becomes her primary contact with other humans. He loves the marsh as much as she does, and over several years, he teaches her to read and write and study the environment. Additionally, a black couple who run the convenience store and gas station become the people who seem to watch out for her the most and protect her.

The story-line weaves back and forth between Kya’s growing up in the 50s and early 60s and the death of a young man in the village. Chase has been Kya’s off- and-on lover, and after his apparent murder, Kya is accused of causing his death. The trial is absolutely breath-taking. I found myself having to pace my reading and my breathing. The climax of the book is equally heart-stopping.

The parts of the book where Kya learns to forage, to live off of nature, and observe everything around her are so beautifully and skillfully written that I became completely enmeshed in the imagery. I found myself underlining many passages beginning with the first paragraph. “The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron’s wings lifting from the lagoon.” Or in an especially vivid description of the village, the author writes, “Mostly the village seemed tired of arguing with the elements, and simply sagged.” Can’t you just see it!

There are reasons why Where the Crawdads Sing has been at the top of the NY Times bestseller list for thirty weeks. Delia Owens spent many years as a nature researcher in Africa, so she can relate to the isolation of the wilderness, whether it be the Savannah or the marsh. In a very interesting interview, she mentions that she picked North Carolina as the setting for the novel because its temperate climate would allow for foraging all year. Owens has written several nonfiction books about Africa, but this is her first foray into fiction. Reese Witherspoon has picked up the rights. We’ll see what can be done to make it into a movie.

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