By Ekta R. Garg, R.eviewer

May 7, 2020

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Release date: August 14, 2018

Genre: Women’s literary fiction

Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars (even though you won’t be able to—see below for details)

Have you ever experienced a summer day where you don’t have any responsibilities, no tasks, no chores? A day where you can go outside, feel the sun on your face, and just sit in the grass while a soft breeze twitches at your hair or brushes past your arm? You know, a day where you sink into the moment and just breathe?

Where the Crawdads Sing is the novel version of that day.

Oh, my. Where to begin? If I’d gotten this book as an ARC, and known what it was, I would have been doing the online version of jumping up and down and demanding everyone’s attention. Calling out on every single outlet at my disposal for people to read this book already.

Of course, Kya wouldn’t have approved of that at all. She would have run straight from her shack into the marsh and waited for all the attention to die down. I know this for a fact; as the main character in Crawdads Kya becomes a published author herself, and her editor has to beg her for a meeting. A meeting that becomes a pivotal point of the story.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s the official “r.eviewer” version of this book:

In 1956, Kya Clark lives in a shack in the marshlands of North Carolina in the tiny town of Barkley Cove. The shack used to belong to her entire family—her four older siblings, her ma and pa. But one by one they left. First Ma, when Kya was six. Then her three oldest siblings. The fourth, her brother Jodie, held out for a while but finally couldn’t take the beatings anymore.

When Kya is left with Pa, she endures his rage and his sullenness. For a short time, a few weeks or months maybe, she thinks things might change. Pa starts to be in a better mood more often. Then a letter comes from Ma. Kya can’t read, so she has no idea what it says, but Pa can and does. The letter undoes Pa. He drifts away from the house like all the others, leaving ten-year-old Kya to figure everything out for herself.

She experiences every emotion under the sun, but in the end there’s one truth that stares her down in the tiny kitchen with the wood stove: she has to take care of herself. There’s no one else to do it. She teaches herself to fish for mussels and oysters and strikes a deal with Jumpin’, the kind black man who fills her boat with gas and sells her other necessities. She’ll provide him with mussels to sell, and he’ll pay for them if she can replenish her stock before other people do. Kya avoids the Piggly Wiggly in town as much as possible, and Jumpin’ and his wife become the closest thing she has to family.

Until she meets Tate. Tate, who shares her love for the marsh and its creatures. Tate, who teaches Kya about why her body is behaving strangely when she crosses into womanhood. Tate, who takes her heart all the way to college, leaving behind promises of love and returns.

When Tate doesn’t come back, Kya finds herself distracted by Chase Andrews. Chase is Barkley Cove’s football star, a looker and the boy every girl wants. He sees Kya as a conquest of sorts but then starts to fall for her bit for bit.

The day Chase Andrews turns up dead, though, everyone starts looking at Kya slant ways. They’ve known for years the “marsh girl” is bizarre, wild, an anomaly in their midst. Everyone knows how she and Chase were carrying on and how it must have upset her when Chase married someone else. It only makes sense, then, to put Kya on trial for Chase’s murder.

There are so many things I love about this book as a reviewer. It captures readers from its first pages. Right from the opening lines of the prologue, author Delia Owens sets the tone and the mood for the story.

“Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky.”

In the next paragraph, Owens continues to make the distinction between the two.

“[C]ompared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.”

The last paragraph of the prologue explains why it’s necessary to understand the difference between a marsh and a swamp.

“On the morning of October 30, 1969, the body of Chase Andrews lay in the swamp, which would have absorbed it silently, routinely. Hiding it for good. A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as a tragedy, certainly not a sin.”

At this point, if anyone thinks this is going to be a story about a girl growing up in the marsh, this tells them they’ve got another think coming. This isn’t just a story about the marshlands of North Carolina. It’s about a murder.

Of course, there are chapters about the marshlands, but not once will readers get bored. Owens’s own background and training guarantee that. For more than two decades, she and her former husband studied lions and zebras in Africa. Do you know what lions do for most of the day? They sleep.

Think about the patience required to watch animals that spend so much time dozing. At some point, you’d notice other things. You’d notice the way the wind sounds, the way the earth smells. You’d get a chance to see the sky light up or darken in a hundred different ways.

And you would, of course, get to observe the animals. Because lions also have their prides, their communal groups, and like any animal group, or human group for that matter, they have their inner politics and their spats, their love for one another and their deep defense if anyone tries to mess with them. They have routines and good days and bad days.

Owens took all of that knowledge, all of that patience and time, and crystallized it for readers. She put it together in the story of Kya, a girl who feels every ounce of the pain of being left behind. She can’t even read until she’s fourteen. She’s aware on one level that she’s vulnerable, but she teaches herself to cook and to shop for groceries. She deals with people in town as little as possible, preferring the company of the gulls. Even when Tate teaches her to read and write, her world continues to expand and contract: it expands in the formalization of her education of the animals and the marsh she loves so much, and it contracts around the love she has for this boy who represents all the good things about her life.

Like the way Tate earns Kya’s trust one page at a time, Owens develops the story at a pace that invites readers into the marsh. She tells readers to step softly, putting a metaphorical finger to her lips even as she beckons her audience to lean closer. The marsh girl is learning to love and learning to read and learning that she, too, has talents.

That’s why it hurts so much when Tate leaves and doesn’t come back like he promised. At least, he doesn’t come back right away. By the time he does, he learns Kya has been spending her time with Chase. But for Kya, Chase is more of a band-aid over the deep wound in her heart.

Nevertheless, when Kya is accused of Chase’s murder, Tate remains steadfast in his faithfulness. Kya realize he’s always been there, like the marsh has always been there, and just like the marsh looks different on different days, depending on the weather, her relationship with Tate will take on different faces as well.

Owens accomplishes an amazing feat: even as she’s giving readers every reason to slow down and get to know Kya in a way that wouldn’t disturb the protagonist, she’s also teasing readers with the details of Chase’s murder. The people who come forward to speak for or against Kya. The deep prejudice in the town that sidelines people of different races and different lifestyles. Even as Kya resents the way the residents of Barkley Cove look down on her, she wishes desperately for their approval. Their love.

The book is one that reaches deep inside and urges readers to come to the edge of a shore and breathe in the air. To listen to the water lapping against the sand. And to spend a lifetime in Kya’s company. That’s one of the best things Owens gives her readers: a lifetime with Kya.

You’ll want to binge this book, but you won’t be able to. It’ll keep asking you to sit back and let the sunlight warm your face. Listen to the book and to Kya. You’ll come away with a greater appreciation for the natural wetlands of our country and for the strength of a little girl who took care of herself.