Where the Crawdads Sing,
by Delia Owens
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (2019)
My book picks this year have been eclectic, but that’s the kind of spread that brings me the most amount of joy in my reading. Over the last few years there’s been a surge in the volume of historical fiction being read. I tried putting the genre aside for a while, but there’s something wonderful about being able to travel through time and live in a distinct period and learn about the culture that prevailed: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Delia Owens’ debut novel shows us just about all of it, and is going to rank high on my year-end list for sure.
The main storyline takes us through the life of Kya Clark, between 1952 and 1970 (ages 6 through 25) as she grows up alone in a shack in the wet wilderness of North Carolina, having been abandoned by everyone in her family. We understand early on that Kya is a survivor, foraging and teaching herself skills to participate in a limited manner in the community, to get her essential supplies among other things. To the townspeople though, Kya is labelled as “the Marsh Girl”, uneducated, poor, and living alone and disconnected from the rest of civilized society. Owens introduces the centerpiece of the book: Kya is on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews, a rich town kid who is/was her love interest. Around the trial, Owens threads us along on a date-jumbled journey to understand the harsh reality of Kya’s life, and the reality that the public understands.
This is a very vivid book. One of the things I learned after completing it was that Delia Owens is an American wildlife scientist. This shines through in her writing, which in some portions is so intricate – while describing foliage, or describing the kind of fish that Kya manages to get her hands on. Owens is skilfully able to tread this fine line between painting a perfect picture through her words, without her descriptions becoming excessive. That balance stems from the fact that Kya is gifted in her own understanding of wildlife and nature, allowing for nature to feature as a character, almost, upon which both Kya, and the furtherance of the book’s plot and narrative rests.
Kya’s reference points all stem from her surrounding environment, a fact that mirrors reality. Nature clearly plays a role in our upbringing (cue the nature versus nurture debate), and Kya is no different. This use of nature though, in making it the focal point of Kya’s life, allows for her depiction as a feral being, Mowgli-esque. Her isolation enables her to understand human interactions with nature far better than others, and her relationship with the environment is fundamental to her identity. Owens’ exposition of this relationship, by including wordy descriptions of the environment while critical scenes are taking place: abandonment, return, and love, made me feel that Kya had a personal relationship with nature that was left unexplored, and as all good books do – it left me wondering what was left unsaid about that relationship, and where it could go next.
Historical fiction leans on conflict and division very frequently, and this book is no different, relying on the class divide to allow for the development of the trial, and the tension in that trial even more. Kya is supported by a minority of the population, and her exclusion from the rest of the public speaks to her background and economic class. However, something I found interesting is that for a book set in 1950’s North Carolina, there was little direct mention of race – a choice that I found curious. Where race is introduced, it didn’t necessarily play a large factor in the book’s plot development – a creative choice I respect. The substitution with economic class allows for a less-traditional exploration of the divide in North Carolina at the time, and one I admired.
This was understandably one of the bestsellers last year. I’d sit and read it again in a heartbeat. Would recommend highly.