I’d like to suggest a few alternate titles for this marvelous novel by Delia Owens. Don’t get me wrong–this book gets all the stars from me for appeal, entertainment, education, and inspiration. But I find the title “Where the Crawdads Sing” a little too cute for such a fierce book. Instead, I suggest:
This book is a portrait of a striking, self-made character. Abandoned by her mother—and then the rest of her family—at age six, Kya learns to stay alive on her own. Cook grits, buy groceries, evade authorities who try to make her go to school. But it takes a few compassionate friends to help her learn to make a life: to read, to grow, to love. And by the end of the book, the hardest lesson for her: to trust. By the end of the novel, she is Katherine Danielle Clark, published expert on life in the marsh and life partner to a research biologist. But she’s also still Kya at heart.
Her survival strategies and painful transformation are fascinating, sad and heartening to witness through a novel that maps her coming of age.
The Swamp Girl
We see the marsh through Kya’s eyes: a rich landscape of palmettos and holly forest populated by gulls, herons, and hawks near the North Carolina coast. We also see, through the eyes of the residents of the village Barkley Cove, a swamp. Dangerous, wild, wasteland haunted by the enigmatic local figure called The Swamp Girl. The town’s ladies pull their children away from her on the street. Local boys dare each other to pound on the door of her shack in the middle of the night. Men talk about who will be the first to rape her. She’s a pariah, and quite vulnerable. But she’s also smart and master of her domain.
A sense of place is key to the beauty. Owens creates both a wilderness paradise and a vivid Southern village complete with local diner, a church lady social hierarchy and amusingly bumbling law enforcement branch.
Great harm personified in the town’s golden boy Chase Andrews, comes close to Kya, close enough to break her heart. But it does not break her. Something is left to continue fighting.
The Mystery of the Fire Tower
Besides being a coming-of-age novel and a commentary on the tension between civilization and the wild, between love and survival, this book contains a kickass courtroom drama. “It’s almost like a different book,” a friend told me.
When Kya is arrested for the murder of Chase Andrews, a full-on trial ensues. We get a detailed accounting of key pieces of evidence and the sheriff’s expert opinion. Chase died in a bizarre way, on Kya’s territory. Yet: could this defenseless, anti-social swamp rat push a grown man over the edge? The jury deliberates. I must admit that I shouted out loud when I read their verdict.
It got tense because I cared deeply about Kya, her well-being, her healing and the semblance of peace she finally achieves. I also cared about justice—marsh justice, it turns out. How dare the so-called “civilized” world mock, shun and pursue this brilliant, peaceful woman who’s seen little but sorrow?
Or would I be one of the nice church ladies warning my kids about “swamp trash?” I hope not.
Titles aside, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a gorgeous read with an underlying intensity—and a false bottom. You’ll want to read all the way to the end.