“Where the Crawdads Sing,” Delia Owens debut novel, was a no. 1 New York Times bestseller. The themes of the story are resiliency, survival, hope, love, loss, loneliness, desperation, prejudice, determination and strength as it juxtaposes an ode to the natural world against a coming-of-age story and a mystery.
The book takes place in Barkley Cove, a quiet fishing village in North Carolina. It is set in the 1950s and ‘60’s. The ‘50s tell the story of Kya Clark; the ‘60s relate a mysterious murder of a local football hero and the subsequent courtroom drama involving Kya.
Kya Clark is known locally as the “marsh girl.” She is abandoned and left to survive in a shack in the marsh by first her mother and then her four sisters. Even at age 5 Kya understands why they left. Her father was an abusive drunk who comes and goes at will. She remains pretty much alone with him until later when he disappears as well.
The marsh becomes her life, her livelihood and the essence of who she is through her self-learned expertise of the insects and the birds and her art. She learns to fish, cook and clean by remembering how it used to be, all the while dealing with the issues of abandonment and loss. She exchanges mussels and smoked fish with Jumpin’ and Mabel for gas for her motor and a few groceries. Mabel gives her shoes, used books and anything that she can get for nothing. They are Kya’s only friends.
Then two love relationships enter the scene. The older Tate, a person she has known all her life, begins to teach Kya how to read and opens up a new world for her. She begins to learn biology, math, and how things grow and change. Another lad brings her hope of a future but is ashamed to introduce her to his friends and family. In the second storyline, Chase Andrews, a local football legend, is found dead. Rumors swirl as to the possible suspects, and the community is certain that the marsh girl is guilty of killing him.
Owens’ descriptions of nature are very poetic, but my eyes began to glaze over and I started skimming after too many pages of overly descriptive, lush writing. It sometimes seemed like the author had cobbled together SAT words and figurative language so to make something seem deep that really wasn’t as she tried too hard to write the great American novel. It had some pacing problems as well, especially in the middle of the book. For a while it seemed nothing was happening, other than Kya fishing and cooking grits.
I also had some credibility concerns in believing that everyone in the family would just leave and abandon Kya. Another credibility issue arose when I was expected to believe that a girl who never learned to read or write until she was 14 would become a self-educated scientist who would write several books. But those are my problems and may not be yours.
If you are looking for a book that has a little bit of several genres and not too much of any, this may be the book for you.
Reviewed by David Beckwith, author of ‘A Demonic Conspiracy.’