By Ekta R. Garg, D.reamer
May 28, 2020
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Release date: August 14, 2018
Genre: Genre: Women’s literary fiction
Almost two years after its release, Where the Crawdads Sing is still on The New York Times bestseller list. It has more than 48,000 reviews on Amazon and more than 71,000 reviews on Goodreads. In an article with the Times, author Delia Owens admits to feeling a little uncertain with all the attention she’s getting.
For those of us pursuing publication ourselves, we’d probably say, “What?!” If you look at it from Owens’s point of view, though, her response makes sense. She’s a researcher and a scientist. She’s spent long hours observing wild animals and studying marshes in a fashion similar to the way her main character, Kya, does. In other words, she’s used to solitude. She’s used to the quiet that’s broken only by animal and nature sounds.
The rest of us, of course, practice speeches in the shower for the kinds of attention Owens is getting. We dream of it. But our dreams have to be built on the very thing Owens’s reality is built on: a rock-solid story.
Kya is a girl of the marsh. She’s also accused of murder. Her heart’s been broken, but her spirit endures. She knows that certain things happening to her shouldn’t happen, don’t happen, to others, but she straightens her spine against the hardships. After her mother walks away from the family and the house in the first chapter, the last paragraph says:
“Kya returned to the porch steps later and waited for a long time, but, as she looked to the end of the lane, she never cried. Her face was still, her lips a simple thin line under searching eyes. But Ma didn’t come back that day either.”
Those of us who’ve been writing for a long time have written about abandonment in some form or the other. Many of you may have even written about child abandonment. But how many of us have exercised the same patience and careful development of our stories the way Owens has hers?
In some ways, it makes sense that the book embodies that patience. In addition to her wildlife work, Owens took almost a decade to write Crawdads. Imagine taking all that time to make sure every single word and line sat on the page the way it should. Then, after submitting it for publication, she would have worked with an editor who helped polish every single page.
The most important takeaway for me, though, from Owens’s book is the fact that readers still want to read. Pandemic or not, politics or not, readers still want quality books that challenge them. Crawdads really forced me to slow down and think. It’s not that the prose is especially difficult, but Kya’s world is one where small movements matter. A breath, a pause, and everything can change in an instant.
Owens reminds us all throughout the book of the careful way Kya built her world. In Chapter 10, after she’s abandoned by everyone in her immediate family, Kya is deliberating about whether she should just give herself up to “the authorities.” Then she decides she can’t leave the marsh, the gulls, and her home, which she calls “the shack.”
“Sitting in the last of the candlelight, she had an idea.
Earlier than usual, she got up the next morning when the tide was low, pulled on her overalls, and slipped out with a bucket, claw knife, and empty tow bags. Squatting in the mud, she collected mussels along the sloughs like Ma had taught her, and in four hours of crouching and kneeling had two croker sacks full.”
Think about the time and effort in all of that. She’s sitting by candlelight and thinking about her life at 10 years old. This isn’t a girl who’s going to flip a switch so she can turn on the TV. No, she’s contemplating what to do next by the light of a wick. Then she gets up the next morning, “earlier than usual”—which makes me wonder just how early she got up in the first place—and proceeds to spend four hours digging mussels.
If that isn’t patience, I don’t know what is.
The entire book is full of instances like this: when Kya is feeding her beloved gulls on her small strip of beach or when she’s hiding in the marsh waiting for the people looking for her to leave. Through it all, despite the times when other characters or people in real life would have panicked or made stupid, hasty mistakes, Kya takes her time to consider the situation and act as if she’s almost one with the natural habitat around her.
And readers ate it all up. Every single word. Every single paragraph.
Every single copy sold.
(Putnam, the book’s publisher, requested a modest 28,000 copies on the first print run. They had to go back to the printer nearly 40 times to keep up with demand.)
Of course, there’s a murder mystery woven through all of this. The chapters pretty much alternate between Kya’s bringing up of herself and the “present day” of 1969 when two police officers are doing their due diligence to find out who killed the local football hero. The appeal of a murder story most likely drew in many readers, but, in all honesty, I think I would have been happy just reading more about Kya’s life.
Owens paints pictures with her words. She leads us into a time when people probably did more dreaming on a more consistent, more frequent basis—the kind of dreaming where you sat by candlelight and thought about your life and what you wanted to do with it. And, more than anything, she proves that we’re still able to dream that way, if we just give ourselves the time to do so.
I dream of writing books like this, the kind that captivate the imagination and make people hold words so dear. About a hundred pages into Crawdads, when Kya finally learns to read, her friend, Tate, guides her through her first group of words.
“Slowly, she unraveled each word of the sentence: “‘There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.’”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”
“You can read, Kya. There will never be a time again when you can’t read.”
“It ain’t just that.” She spoke almost in a whisper. “I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.””
This crystallizes the entire book, the entire experience of reading Where the Crawdads Sing. Delia Owens has given us a novel that holds so much, that’s so full. I hope, one day, to do the same.