Her mother walked down the dirt road out of the marsh to escape her violent, drunken husband in 1952, when Kya was only six years old. Without her protection, Kya’s older brothers and sisters slipped away, as well. Kya was the youngest. For the most part, her father seemed to forget that she existed and spent days at a time in the bars in town, leaving his little daughter to fend for herself in the marsh. Every once in a while, he left a little money on the table, and Kya learned to start the boat motor and buy grits at the store. She ate the edible weeds in the yard, and during a short stint of sobriety, her father taught her to fish. The truancy officer got her to school for one day, but it didn’t stick. The kids were so mean to the “Marsh Girl” that Kya hid whenever the official lady came back, so eventually she gave up.
Kya’s life changed when Tate, a boy from the town, started to leave her gifts of rare feathers. She remembered that her mother had been an artist, and she learned to draw and paint the feathers and then all of the tiny creatures in the marsh. She organized her specimens, and when Tate taught her to read, her collections grew into full-fledged scientific pursuits. Although she did not mix with the townspeople, she did spy on the group of popular kids her own age throughout the years, especially the high school quarterback, Chase Andrews.
Interspersed with the chronological narrative of Kya’s growing up are chapters set in 1969, when a couple of little boys discover the dead body of Chase Andrews under the fire tower. The sheriff and the town doctor cannot figure out how he died. There were no footprints leading up to the tower— not even Chase’s own. No tire tracks, no fingerprints. On the surface, there seemed to be no motive to kill the most popular young man in town, but in fact, there was no end of jilted lovers and jealous husbands on the suspect list.
The first unforgettable character in this novel is the marsh itself. Owens describes the plants, the animals, the soil, even the very air of lowcountry North Carolina so intimately that the reader feels the heat, the grit, the crawling life of the place in every pore. Kya feeds the gulls every day, and she knows them each as individuals. She scratches a garden together and forages for whatever grows wild. Her collections are labeled with not just the bird’s species, but the placement of the feather and the bird’s gender. She navigates the lagoons by tide and current, watching the weather and the waves. This watery landscape is as much a part of Kya’s desperate story as the plot and the other characters.
What can I say about Where the Crawdads Sing that hasn’t already been said? I am late to this party, but I’m so glad I came. The holds on this book continue to climb in our library catalog, and it’s been out for over a year now. The novel takes place about two hours east of where I live in North Carolina, and yet it’s a world away.
Where the Crawdads Sing is somehow slow and compelling at once, with the sort of ambiguous ending that makes it a favorite for book groups. Kya’s story is unforgettable: a strong young woman, a female-American Émile who struggles to survive outside of the bonds of community, whose essence is formed not by human culture, but from the marsh itself.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.