[A Note from the Reviewer on 10/21/2021:
It has been almost two years since I read this book. At the time, I was incredibly taken by it, and as you’ll read in this review, I spoke highly of its craft and contents. However, in the time since, I have read significantly more books, and I have learned some disturbing information.
Although I will leave my original blog post intact (for now), I would like to comment that I no longer stand by my previous praise. It was an enjoyable read for me at the time, but in hindsight, I now feel that it is a very mediocre book. True, the writing is pretty strong in many cases, but it is not as strong a work of fiction as many other books I’ve read more recently.
Moreover, I have discovered some information regarding Delia Owens and her husband Mark Owens. In a very thorough The New Yorker piece, their complicated actions in Africa allegedly connect them with the hunting and killing of poachers. Though a theoretically just cause, the methods employed are quite ethically questionable and perhaps even racially motivated. All in all, the information makes me feel uncomfortable lauding this book, and while I would typically leave this blog post to collect dust and forget it in the abyss that is the Web, it appears that viewers are still clicking on this post to this day, so I wanted to add this disclaimer.
Do what you will with this insight.]
Note: This book review is intended for readers who have already read Where the Crawdads Sing, and so this contains several significant spoilers!
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a delectable debut novel written by a woman who has a BS in Zoology, a PhD in Animal Behavior, and has spent time as a wildlife scientist in Africa. Currently she lives in North Carolina, where this book takes place.
This book is both a murder mystery and a love letter to the wildlife of marshy North Carolina. Set between 1952 and 2009, it tells the tale of Kya Clark, known to the locals as the “Marsh Girl,” and how she grows up more or less on her own, having been abandoned by her family. Over the years, she learns how to become self-sustaining and capable, and with the help of a friend named Tate, she eventually learns how to read, which changes the entire course of her life. As she plows through scientific literature and poetry, she becomes an expert on her local wildlife, combining her artistic talent and vast knowledge to create a field guide, the first of its kind in her region. Meanwhile, she struggles to rebuild her trust in Tate after he leaves her for his college career for a few years, and in his absence, Kya began a relationship with Chase Andrews, a rich and handsome trouble maker from town. But after Kya discovers she’s being played by Chase, who gets engaged with another woman, Kya refuses to see him again, causing Chase to anger. Then, when two boys find Chase dead one day in the swamp, local police officers begin investigating, tracing several clues back to Kya. After they arrest her, she must endure the trial, where the jury seems most likely to convict her—except, miraculously, she is found innocent! She and Tate, with time, rekindle their relationship and spend the rest of their days in the marsh together, where they feel most content in nature. It’s not until after Kya passes away of old age that Tate discovers a box with physical evidence that Kya did, in fact, murder Chase Andrews all those decades ago, and quite fortunately avoided consequence.
Although the telling of this novel is centered around the murder of Chase, it is ultimately a romantic and tender novel about love and relationships, perseverance of the soul, and nature’s brilliance.
Perhaps what is most noteworthy about this critically acclaimed novel is the sheer elegance of its prose. Owens’ poetic descriptions of North Carolina’s flora and fauna are palpable through the pages, immersing the reader in vivid imagery. Her knowledge of the region’s wildlife is apparent and abundant, her love for the geographic area bursting from her text.
Autumn was coming; the evergreens might not have noticed, but the sycamores did. They flashed thousands of golden leaves across the slate-gray skies.Page 122
I love the unique way in which Owens speaks of the world, often wording sentences in a way that make me stop reading and savor the eloquence of her craft.
Months passed, winter easing gently into place, as southern winters do. The sun, warm as a blanket, wrapped Kya’s shoulders, coaxing her deeper into the marsh. Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled it was the land that caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.Page 34
My favorite element of this book is most absolutely the writing. As a writer and a reader, I have a deep love for Owens’s careful descriptions and lovely tone, which elevates this book remarkably. Most everyone else I’ve spoken to about Where the Crawdads Sing likewise admire her writing, and it seems to be its shining quality.
- What are some of your favorite passages from this book?
Out of all the characters within this book, it’s easy for me to cite Jumpin’ and Mabel as my favorite. Jumpin’, who owns a shop along the marsh, acts more like a father than Kya’s dad ever did, treating her with respect and guiding her over the years. He and Mabel selflessly provide for and support Kya, anywhere from donating clothes to her, to teaching her about important female biological phases (my eloquent way of saying “menstruation”!). After all the negligence and abuse Kya faces, it’s incredibly gratifying that she is offered this sort of parent-like love from someone.
And each time she came to his wharf, she saw her book propped up in the tiny window for all to see. As a father would have shown it.Page 222
While Tate is another inherently “good” character—except for his temporary abandonment of Kya which he spends much time regretting—he is almost too good. Over the course of the novel, his character undergoes little development, and other than his brief and somewhat off-brand selfishness, he is chronically good to Kya. Which isn’t to say that she doesn’t merit kindness, nor is it to say that Tate, being a secondary character, needs to change throughout the novel, but one way this writer could have added another level to its story would be to better develop Tate. When I think about his arc, he starts off as a kind child, one who befriends Kya despite the stigma surrounding her, and he teaches her how to read; as a teenager, he further bonds with Kya until he goes to college, where he becomes highly involved as a student and doubts his relationship with Kya, who is bound to the marsh; after years of pretending like Kya no longer exists in his life, he returns to the swamp, and thus dedicates the rest of his life to helping her, protecting her, and loving her. Other than his duration in college, he is typical “male love interest” grade, and has a father even more wholesome than he is.
This is the same issue with most of the secondary characters, which is that they almost feel a little two-dimensional. Tate’s father Scupper is incredibly in tune with his emotions and his son’s feelings. Jumpin’ and Mabel are ride-or-die for Kya. Jodie, Kya’s brother who eventually returns, is unquestioningly patient and respectful of her hard-headed demands, especially after she is let out of jail after being declared innocent.
Although, I will say that I struggle sometimes when it comes to deeming characters and plots as “realistic” or not. Often, I will read a story where a character acts and thinks in ways that I find unrealistic and unlikely in real life, yet as a writer, I also acknowledge that sometimes when I’m writing my own story, I don’t want my characters to be realistic—sometimes I want my characters to be a caricature, or over-the-top, or even watered down. The point of art is not always to perfectly mimic reality, but to paint reality through our own creative lens. There are painters who produce highly abstract art, and there are painters who paint with such exactness that their art looks like a photograph, and there are places for both types of artists in this world. Both abstract art and photo-realism hang in the walls of museums, because they speak to people.
That being said, I do think that there are a few characters in this book that somewhat transparently drive the plot. Jodie returning home after practically a lifetime away, seemed somewhat convenient. It was an opportunity for Owens to explain what had happened to Kya’s mom and Jodie after they each left, shedding light on their perspectives which had been opposite Kya’s. Jumpin’, although he was my favorite, was the character who always had the answer to Kya’s questions, like a character in a video game who’s always standing outside their shop ready to strike up a helpful dialogue with the player. So, I do feel that some of the characters were a little “cheap” and not as fully fleshed out or humanized as they could have been.
Kya does undergo a significant transformation and miraculously comes into her own as a woman, and although she has the support of a few characters along the way, she really accomplishes most of her feats on her own. After her family members leave one-by-one, she learns how to provide her own food, and after Tate teaches her how to read, she pores over books tirelessly, acquiring as much knowledge as possible. When Chase’s violence threatens her safety, she even “takes care” of him all on her own, the way that she learned from the circle of life.
“Please don’t talk to me about isolation. No one has to tell me how it changes a person. I have lived it. I am isolation,” Kya whispered with a slight edge.Page 237
One of the ongoing challenges Kya faces is repeated abandonment and how it affects her soul. Because she lives in such solitude, I think it causes Kya to be quite a somber character. Her personality is still and thoughtful, the way the marsh is, with sporadic bursts of energy. She’s a rather muted version of a young woman, as loneliness quiets her personality—we see this exacerbated when she effectively wilts after she is imprisoned during the trial, so badly longing for her home land. While, as a younger woman, she craves companionship and affection at the same time she is apprehensive of it, as she grows older, she adopts a more defensive tactic; through her experiences, she has learned that despite her hoping, her loved ones seem to continue to abandon her, one after another.
“You were supposed to be different. To stay. You said you loved me, but there is no such thing. There is no one on Earth you can count on.” From somewhere very deep, she made herself a promise never to trust or love anyone again.Page 145
Throughout the novel, Kya’s heart hardens and softens, is loved and scorned. She grapples with the various relationships she forms, some enduring and others self-destructing. When she tries to draw some hard-lined conclusion, such as to never love again, she finds that this is no way to live, as after the trial, when she returns home, she eventually opens up her heart, finding that there are many more shades and tints to human connections than what she first wanted to declare. Thankfully, despite all the heartache, Kya does finally experience and accept the love that surrounds her.
- Who is your favorite character?
- Do you think the characters in this novel are believable and realistic?
- What experience do you think developed Kya the most and why?
Owens sets up the events in side-by-side timelines. For most of the book, every-other chapter or so is set in 1969, whereas the alternating chapters are set before then, at progressing ages in Kya’s life. Thus, the way that the book unfolds keeps the reader’s wonder constantly turning—who killed Chase? Ah, a clue! How does this connect to the past? Oh no, little Kya! And so on, until both timelines merge at the end. This is a fantastic and gripping technique for writers to build suspense and create a succinct, nicely compact tale where no one part drones on and on.
The overall plot was enjoyable. I liked how the very end revealed a couple of loose threads, such as the poet Amanda Hamilton being Kya’s pseudonym, which I had not even picked up on. I had also been convinced that Tate murdered Chase, so after Kya dies, when I realized it was her doing, I was somewhat shocked. How did she plan all that out? How did she have such a detailed understanding of the real world in order to strategize and orchestrate such a murder? Did her loved ones ever wonder, in all that time, if there was a possibility she did kill him, especially after Jumpin’ was specifically aware that Chase was out to get Kya?
Even though the part of the book I feel most doubtful about is how Kya killed Chase and got away with it, I do support her killing him. (Ha! What a funny thing to write.) But with all things considered, her study of nature, his threatening existence, and the time period of this book, it’s intuitive that she would commit murder in order to protect herself. Her reading foreshadowed it:
Some female insects eat their mates, overstressed mammal mothers abandon their young, many males design risky or shifty ways to outsperm their competitors. Nothing seemed too indecorous as long as the tick and the rock of life carried on. She knew this was not a dark side to Nature, just inventive ways to endure against all odds. Surely for humans there was more.Pages 183-184
And then, later:
Female fireflies draw in strange males with dishonest signals and eat them; mantis females devour their own mates. Female insects, Kya thought, know how to deal with their lovers.Page 274
I think ultimately, these crude qualities of nature somehow help Kya cope not only with her conflict with Chase, but her struggles with accepting her mother’s abandonment. Animals and insects do what they have to in order to survive. In fact, Kya admits to Jodie that she forgives her mother for leaving—it’s her mother not returning, that hurts Kya the most.
- What was your favorite section in this book?
- How do you feel about Kya murdering Chase?
- Were you surprised by the ending or was it predictable for you?
In the beginning of the novel, Pa is cold. He is drunk, abusive, and negligent. Only for a brief period of time does Kya enjoy the companionship of her father as he begins to take her fishing and call her “hon,” until a letter sent from Kya’s mom sends him into a rage, thus eradicating all affection for his daughter. “Pa never took her fishing again. Those warm days were just a thrown-in season” (page 70). This emotional distance hurt Kya, just like her mother’s abandonment hurt her.
At the end of the novel, after the trial, Kya wants to be alone. Her brother begs her,
“Kya, don’t let this horrible thing drive you further from people. It’s been a soul-crushing ordeal, but this seems to be a chance to start over. The verdict is maybe their way of saying they will accept you.”Page 350
To which Kya responds,
“That’s what nobody understands about me.” She raised her voice, “I never hated people. They hated me. They laughed at me. They left me. They harassed me. They attacked me. Well, it’s true; I learned to live without them. Without you. Without Ma! Or anybody!”Page 350
In this scene, we see how Kya has become her parents to an extent. She does not want love or acceptance; she wants to close herself off from all others. She has been hurt, and so in order not to be hurt further, she pushes people away. Kya claims she learned to live without anybody’s help.
This parallels her mother’s big decision to leave her family to escape Kya’s abusive father and the life that disappointed her… More or less, Kya decides that she is going to emotionally abandon her loved ones. We can understand and forgive Kya for feeling hurt and growing emotionally distant from them because of the pain she endures, but now it is Kya’s choice on how to proceed: does she “come back,” or does she continue to “abandon” her friends and family through her emotional defensiveness? At the same time that Kya forgives her mother for leaving, Kya doesn’t understand how Ma doesn’t come back. Just as her father shuts himself off from loving Kya, she is now shutting herself off from her brother and everyone else who supports her.
Fortunately, though, Kya does not continue the cycle of hurting. With some time and reflection after this moment of heat, she eventually opens up her heart again and allows herself to be emotionally vulnerable again, in a resilient act of human perseverance. With this brave choice, Kya gains everything that she has longed for—a full lifetime of love, nature, and peace.
Tate’s devotion eventually convinced her that human love is more than the bizarre mating competitions of the marsh creatures, but life also taught her that ancient genes for survival still persist in some undesirable forms among the twists and turns of man’s genetic code.
For Kya, it was enough to be part of this natural sequence as sure as the tides. She was bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are. Rooted solid in this earth. Born of this mother.Page 363
I love this book, and it was a rich, poignant, and fulfilling first read of the year. I love holding it in my hands, flipping through the pages to revisit the passages I underlined, traveling to the marsh in my mind. Part of me wonders if Delia Owens created Kya as a sort of alter ego, a young woman who she identifies with–a young woman who lives among the land, removed from society, living and breathing her surroundings. Because to me, being Kya and living in a cabin in a marsh with the love of my life, creating art and poetry, sounds so absolutely heavenly.
Please leave a comment with your thoughts on Where the Crawdads Sing!
Also, if you’d like to participate in future book discussions from the Slanted Spines Booklist, check out my main post about 2020’s reading! The last Friday of every month will be a new book review; February’s book is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng!