Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | February 24, 2020

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

I wanted to read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owen because 1) it’s an unexpected best seller; 2) the descriptions in reviews of how nature played such an important part in the narrative sounded intriguing; and 3) when I read that this is the first novel for the 70+ year-old author, I was hooked.

Where-the-Crawdads-Sing-3-1500[1]It was a good read. The evidence: I read it almost all on one of those lazy, cold Saturday mornings when I allowed myself the indulgence of putting off working, house-cleaning, bill-paying, cooking, and curled up in bed with a heating pad on my feet. I read till I had to admit that I was starting to doze off, even though it was getting to the good part—the denouement, the reveal about the murder mystery. When I woke up the next morning, I immediately reached for the book and didn’t get out of bed until I finished it. I just HAD to find out how it ended!

It was a compelling read, and yet it vacillated between being a fascinating character study and a somewhat cliched romance novel. The main character, Kya, is basically orphaned at age seven, as every one of her family members gradually abandons her—a mother we only get glimpses of in Kya’s memories, a mostly drunk father who beats the joy and the tar out of everyone in the family when under the influence, and all of Kya’s three older siblings.

And yet, this tough, resourceful little thing figures out how to survive, in large part due to the fact that she is truly one with nature. Nature is not just a backdrop to the story, it is almost another character in the book. References to nature are not at all self-conscious or forced, but instead permeate every chapter:

Above the roar of pounding waves, Kya called to the birds. The ocean sang bass, the gulls sang soprano. Shrieking and crying, they circled over the marsh and above the sand as she threw piecrust and yeast rolls onto the beach. Legs hanging down, heads twisting, they landed.

And nature is the essence of the character Kya. She observes nature, collects its artifacts, especially bird feathers and shells, and records her findings—this despite the fact that she does not learn how to read until she is almost a teen-ager. Instead, she draws and paints as a way of recording what she finds. In other words, she is a natural scientist, not unlike the author, Delia Owens. Kya even figures out how to make a living from nature by fishing and gathering mussels and selling them to a local, who becomes a father figure to her.

The short bio accompanying the book says that Owens is a zoologist with a Ph.D. in animal behavior, and coauthor of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa. She now lives in Idaho — according to her web site, though her book bio says she lives in the mountains of North Carolina. The book is set in the coastal wetlands of North Carolina, in the marshes. The main character is called the “Marsh Girl” by the many backwoods, small town, redneck-like townspeople who populate the book. It’s hard not to get the feeling that the Marsh Girl is a stand-in for the author, at least in the areas of study that interest the author.

Of course, the Marsh Girl triumphs in the end—thanks to an unlikely suitor, a sympathetic young man who teaches her how to read and seems to understand that she is a skittish as a wild animal. He’s her childhood sweetheart before she even knows what a sweetheart is. By the end of the book, the Marsh Girl has not only learned to read and continue her inclination to observe, collect, gather and organize the world of nature around her, but she becomes a regional publishing sensation, the author and illustrator of dozens of books profiling the minutiae of nature in all its forms in the marshes of North Carolina—the birds, the plants, the mushrooms, the shells.

A good narrative can’t be without conflict, however. In this story, the Marsh Girl’s outsider status figures prominently, not just in her lack of social standing and social skills, and her conflicts about how to interact with the small community she lives near, but even more so in the men who enter and exit and re-enter her life. It’s these men who are the less credible characters in the narrative. One is a savior, though not exactly a saint, who not only shares Kya’s love of nature and pursues it as a post-doctoral career, but he (and his father) have an appreciation for poetry and opera. The other is a stereotype—the swaggering high school jock; the spoiled only child of successful parents. He is the kind of guy who has to brag about sexual conquests, even when there’s been no conquest; the kind of guy who will say anything to a girl just to get in her pants.

What keeps you reading, besides wanting to find out the story of this unusual, resourceful, fascinating young girl, is the murder mystery, hints of which are woven throughout the book, but culminate in a trial. I couldn’t possibly spoil the ending for those who haven’t read this book yet. But let me tell you—it was totally unexpected!

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