I just finished reading Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. I didn’t initially realize that such a big “to-do” had been made about the book; one of my students had read and liked it, and passed it along to me. She doesn’t know much about my reading tastes, but this immersion in the life of a virtual orphan growing up alone in the marshes of North Carolina was just to my taste. It apparently struck a chord with many others as well, considering its 33 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list!
We had just read a book for YA Literature class (If You Find Me, my review here) in which a bipolar mother with a meth habit raises her kids out in the middle of a national forest until they are 14 and 6 years old, so to pick this up next, by sheer coincidence, and discover a protagonist who is deserted by her mother, all her brothers and sisters, and finally by her alcoholic and abusive father (the reason why everyone else left) to grow up alone in the wilderness was pretty weird.
This story also made me think of my mother, the youngest of nine children and the last left at home, whose own mother died when mine was 10 years old and who had to care for her father (a truck farmer with severe rheumatoid arthritis) alone for the next two years, when he died too and she was sent off to live with a serial array of sisters until she turned 20 and married. Her stories of struggling to cook on a wood stove after her mother was gone, and of being ashamed of her meager wardrobe of two skirts and
two sweaters when she was in high school made me tap right into similar accounts in this novel.
The book revealed the sad truth about so many people, which is that they will hold your upbringing and circumstances against you even when no part of them is your fault or choice, and will treat people who are poor or different as pariahs rather than embracing them and turning them into “one of us.” Thankfully, this child had her points of connection to humanity, and as seems typical, it was the people with the least to give (the black couple with the dockside fueling station, the store proprietor who made the wrong change to give Kya more buying power) who gave and did the most.
I could see, in some areas of disconnect between one sentence and the next, or an occasional parochial description that took me out of the story, that this was a first-time writer; but all was made up for by the lyrical, celebratory, sometimes lush language used to bring the marsh and its environs to life on the page. There were certain moments, too, in the human interactions that were both beautiful and unique—such as Tate teaching Kya to read not by using an alphabet book or a traditional text but by urging her to read from the Southern Almanac, so that her understanding of words and their complexities is powerful from the very beginning, as well as tied into nature. Since nature was already her primary fascination, this choice could only expedite everything she was to become.
The story of her life alone in the marsh, her hardships and challenges, her gradual awakening first to friendship and then to first love followed by another desertion, and then the betrayal by the second person to whom she gave a chance was heartbreaking. The fact that she was then the prime suspect in a murder, almost exclusively the result of no other evidence but that of being the “Marsh Girl,” further illustrated the ignorance and small-mindedness that surrounds the unknown. But there are twists in this book you don’t see coming, and front to back (with some slow passages here and there), it was a mesmerizing read.
I would agree with the reviewers’ assessment that people who like Barbara Kingsolver (especially such books as Prodigal Summer and Animal Dreams) would also enjoy this book. Perhaps also the readers of Diane Ackerman or Annie Dillard. Like the worlds they “discover” for the reader, the marshes and swamps surrounding the Outer Banks are lovely places in which to immerse oneself.