Where the Crawdads Sing is a debut novel by Delia Owens that left me breathless in a way that no book ever has before, and I think sets a high standard that very few books will ever meet. I do not say this lightly. This book is the closest to perfection I have ever had the pleasure to read. The book clubs are abuzz with chatter about this book, and I waited close to 6 weeks before this request arrived at the library. It was worth the wait.
TRIGGER WARNING: domestic violence, child abandonment, abuse and neglect, bullying, racism, socioeconomic discrimination, and attempted rape.
There are two storylines in this book – the first starts in the early 1950s, when their mother abandons Kya Clark and her 4 older siblings to live with their drunken, abusive father in the marshes of North Carolina. The siblings eventually drift away, leaving young Kya to navigate through an intimidating world on her own with barely any skills or tools. She is an outcast who stays away from the town where she doesn’t fit in, and prefers to make friends with the gulls. She’s sweet and shy, and despite her lack of formal education she is brilliant. She is desperately lonely, and as time goes on, she attracts the attention of two young men from the town, which has unexpected consequences.
The other storyline occurs in 1969, when the town’s golden boy and former football star, Chase Andrews, is found dead in the swamp. His death is suspicious, and the locals immediately suspect Kya, who has continued to stay on the fringes of society.
The author displays an incredible knowledge of the area that she writes of. While I’ve never been to the marshes of North Carolina, I can envision myself there when she writes her descriptions:
“The darkness held an odor of sweetness, the earthy breath of frogs and salamanders who’d made it through one more stinky-hot day.”
There are clear differences in the speech patterns of the white people in town, who speak closer to proper English, although there is a tendency towards saying “ya” rather than “you,” while the black people in the book speak very differently:
“A’right den, his’n arms ain’t gwine tuck in much, so cain’t roll ‘im onto the gunny; hafta lift ‘im and he’s gwine be heavy…”
The people living in the marsh have their own patterns of speech that are vastly different from both the whites in town and the black people:
“Looky here, hon, Ah got us a big un, big as Alabamee!” and cooking hush puppies “fat as goose aigs.”
Her knowledge of the flora and fauna of the marsh is incredible and the details leave the reader with no doubt that she is intimately familiar with the area and has done her research thoroughly.
The references to the foods makes me nostalgic for family trips I used to take down south, where we would stop and get grits, sausage with country gravy, hush puppies, and fried chicken like nothing I’d find anywhere up north.
I was also surprised at the mention of segregation even as late as 1970. While I wasn’t even close to being born, I was under the impression that the civil rights movement was a part of the 1960s. I guess that since I wasn’t around for it, I just took it for granted that it was like waving a wand, and POOF! Desegregation happened. Although now that I take the time to think about it, I’m sure it wasn’t that easy to change a way of life that had been in place for centuries. While I’m firmly against segregation, I can also see how difficult it can be to change patterns of thought and living that have been in place for so long that they’re second nature, even if they’re unfair, unjust, and biased. In rural areas like the setting of this story, it could have taken even longer to change than in urban settings. I just didn’t realize how recently it really was that segregation still existed.
I may be biased, but I love Kya’s character from the first moment she appears on the page. There’s just something about this lonely little girl who is abandoned by her mother that reaches out to my heart, and grabs hold of it, not letting go. Somehow, I feel her pain and longing without ever having gone through a sliver of what she has dealt with in her short lifespan:
“Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”
My heart broke when I realize the deep level of judgment that Kya faces from people in the town, when at the age of 7 she crosses paths with the preacher’s wife by accident:
“I wish those people wouldn’t come to town. Look at her. Filthy. Plumb nasty. There’s that stomach flu goin’ around and I just know for a fact it came in with them. Last year they brought in that case of measles, and that’s serious.”
She lives in primitive conditions, even for 1960s standards, without running water or electricity, and uses an outhouse. Of course, she isn’t even aware of this, since she hasn’t been to anyone else’s house at any point in her life. Young Kya is focused on survival to the best of her abilities, navigating between avoiding her father’s alcohol-fueled abuse and unpredictable moods, and her reliance on him for money to buy food, as well as trying to figure out how to cook without the ability to read directions. As she gets older, her emotional needs are far more difficult to meet. The longer she lives on the fringes of society, the more impossible it becomes to integrate into a society that she doesn’t fit into or understand. When I look at the larger picture of Kya being abandoned by the people she trusted most, and expected to care for her, I’m more surprised that she even interacted with anyone at all in the first place. She’s immensely flawed, but I understand why, and can’t possibly fault her for it.
While Kya steals my heart completely, Tate does as well. He’s another character that is central to the story. Tate is a quiet, unassuming boy who seems to just understand Kya exactly as she is. He isn’t perfect, but that’s what makes him real as well. I love a character with flaws. If I wanted perfect characters, I’d read fairy tales. There is a scene where Kya knows how to avoid scaring off a deer in the marsh, and Tate is instinctively aware of how to avoid spooking Kya as well:
“He didn’t want to shame her, so didn’t show surprise. She was awfully good at reading eyes.”
I’d love to tell you more about Tate, but you’ll have to read the story for yourself.
The story and the characters are portrayed in such as vivid way that they are captivating and real. Not a single character is perfect, each one has flaws, which makes them more believable. Nearly every single character has redeeming characteristics to them as well. I have read many books that made me tear up a little, but I’ve never read a single book that made me sob the way that this book did, and not just once. I cried like a baby multiple times while reading, and not just out of sympathy for the characters, but also out of relief and happiness at times as well.
I finished this book and was astounded at the depth of emotion that Delia Owens had wrung from these pages. It’s an incredible book, and there wasn’t a single thing I didn’t love about it. The way the storyline starts separately, starting 17 years apart, going back and forth between Kya’s tale of growing up and a murder investigation. The stories converge to meet at one point and go forward from there, and carry us far into the future. I enjoyed the ending, which provides a sense of closure. It’s an emotional read, but it’s worth the tears and the sobs. It’s worth the time to read and invest your feelings in the characters. It is definitely a book I won’t soon forget, and hopefully you’ll read it too.
Categories: Book Review