Where the Crawdads Sing
"Readers should set aside daily tasks, turn off cell phones, forget about laundry and possibly even eating once they start this story."
Delia Owens’ outstanding Southern fiction debut is set in the marsh lands off the North Carolina coast and is both a coming of age story, and a murder mystery. Readers should set aside daily tasks, turn off cell phones, forget about laundry and possibly even eating once they start this story.
It begins with a vivid prologue that explains the differences between a marsh and a swamp, and how a swamp is about decay and decomposing matter while a marsh is teeming with life. The very last sentence of this one page reveals the beginning of the mystery, when the body of a popular boy by the name of Chase Andrews is discovered.
From this point on, the chapters alternate between the main characters, Kya, in her earlier years, and back to the sheriff and his cohort in their investigation of the murder of Chase Andrews. The timelines eventually merge toward the end of the book.
The introduction to six-year-old Kya begins as she watches her mama walk out the door, wearing her special alligator shoes, and carrying a suitcase. It’s the shoes and the suitcase she fixates on. She stares at her mother’s back, waits for her to turn and wave because she knows her mama never wears those shoes, and doesn’t carry that case, not when she’s going to buy food. Her mama does neither.
Still, Kya patiently waits for her to return, but as weeks pass, she comes to realize she’s been left with her only remaining older brother, Jodie, and her often missing, abusive, alcoholic father. There were other siblings at one time, but, one by one they’ve all left, like her mama, driven away by their Pa’s abusive nature. As time goes on, she replaces her human mother with the one thing that gives her comfort.
“Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”
Then Jodie leaves, and it’s just Kya, and her Pa. Kya stays out of sight as much as possible, knowing if he doesn’t see her, he can’t hurt her. One day he comes back from one of his disappearances to find she’s cooked for him, swept the shack, cleaned his room, and washed his clothes.
“Ah swannee, girl, what’s a’ this? Looks like ya went and got all growed up. Cookin’ and all.”
Slow, yet steady, they learn how to be around one another. When Kya is ten, her Pa begins to exhibit old behaviors, showing up less and less once again. Eventually weeks pass without a sign, and she tries to figure what may have happened to him, but finally must conclude he isn’t coming back.
“I guess he’s gone for good.”
She realizes how dire her situation is, with no “Monday money,” and very few supplies.
“I don’t know how to do life without grits.”
But Kya knows the marsh, and if nothing else, she is resourceful and clever. She learns to thrive. While she’s had some help from a man called Jumpin’ and his wife, Mabel, others from the village see her as trash, and call her the Marsh Girl, as if to ostracize her.
The older Kya becomes, the more she yearns for companionship, maybe for love. She sees others her age walking along the beaches of her marsh, and through the years develops a friendship with a boy named Tate, and before his murder, with Chase Andrews. They both play a significant roles in her life.
As the chapters alternate and the story develops, the sheriff and his deputy continue to investigate the mysterious death of Chase Andrews and uncover more clues, bit by bit. It’s clear they have concluded Kya is the one who’s committed the murder while all Kya has ever longed for is to belong and to be loved.
Owens’ writing is tight, yet sumptuous. It is abundant with descriptive prose and brings the reader straight to the edges of the briny marsh waters, and directly into the mind of the Marsh Girl. Reading this story is at once a study in the ecological environment as much as it is an exquisite virtual experience to a unique place in our natural world. The conclusion is haunting and unexpected, yet leaves a sense of fulfillment as all well-told stories do.