NOTE: This post contains affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products that I love. Please read my full disclosure here for more information.
For months, I’ve been inundated with hype, both on social media and through word of mouth, surrounding the Delia Owens literary hit, Where the Crawdads Sing.
I’m usually slow to begin these “flavor of the month” novels which top the best seller list, unless I receive a glowing review from someone I deeply trust. However, with this novel, my circle of friends was unanimous.
Some of the responses I received:
“One of my favorites!”
“Loved, loved, loved!”
“One of my favorite books!”
I finally picked up the novel and began to read in earnest.
I will admit – the beginning was slow. The first chapter caught my attention well enough, with its description of a little girl, Catherine Danielle Clark (“Kya”), seemingly abandoned by her mother, left with her older siblings and an abusive father in a run-down home nestled deep in the North Carolina marsh outside Barkley Cove. Who wouldn’t sympathize with her plight? The pathos escalates from there, with her siblings leaving one by one, including her beloved brother Jodie.
However, the next few chapters slow to a snail’s pace. We are treated to a sometimes painful description of Kya’s struggle to survive, including how she learns to navigate the moods and rages of her alcoholic father. A glimmer of hope emerges when he begins to take an interest in the welfare of young Kya, particularly after she begins to cook and clean the house for him. This does not last, however, as a letter from her mother seemingly drives him back over the edge, and all was as it was before.
Before long, Kya is completely abandoned as her father also disappears.
“Jumpin” and his kindly wife Mabel are local African-American residents who operate a local convenience store on the marsh; there, Kya sells mussels in order to survive and also purchases gas for her boat. Mabel also teaches her about other important things, such as a woman’s cycle.
Kya attends school for one day. She never returns due to bullying by the local children. She is able to hide in the marsh in order to avoid the truant officers.
In the marsh, she finds Tate Walker, a local boy whom she quickly befriends. He teaches her to read and brings her books, which open her mind and plant the seeds for her career as a celebrated, though still reclusive, naturalist.
As she blossoms from wild child into young woman, Kya’s path crosses that of Chase Andrews, a handsome local boy, star quarterback, and the prize catch of Barkley Cove – the man every woman wants to date.
Chase ultimately breaks Kya’s heart and weds another, despite having promised marriage to Kya for a year.
He attempts to carry on their relationship after their marriage and becomes violent to Kya when she refuses him.
When Chase falls off the fire tower (under suspicious circumstances), all eyes turn to Kya, the mysterious Marsh Girl, as she is known in Barkley Cove. Suspicion mounts when it’s discovered that Chase’s dead body was found without a shell necklace which Kya had previously given to him. She becomes the main suspect.
When Kya is accused and charged with Chase’s murder, we quickly see how the odds are stacked against her by the prejudiced townspeople, even though she has a seemingly rock-solid alibi. The prosecutor goes to great lengths during court proceedings to prove her guilt, bending over backwards to present highly implausible scenarios. We have some foreshadowing, however, as to how the trial will turn out when the courthouse cat, symbolically named “Justice,” warms to Kya, even curling up in her lap in her jail cell.
Kya is ultimately acquitted after a lengthy courtroom drama.
Following the murder trial, she and Tate do not marry but profess their love and live together in her shack, now renovated, on the edge of the marsh. She also reunites with her brother Jodie and learns something of her mother’s story after leaving the marsh.
Just as we have a neat sense of closure, the book springs the ultimate bombshell with only a page left. After Kya has passed away many years later, Tate discovers a poem written by Kya which strongly implies her guilt for the murder. The shell necklace lies close by the poem.
ANALYSIS (***MORE SPOILERS***)
The ending, for me, is what makes or breaks a novel, and it definitely sets “Where the Crawdads Sing” on a higher plane of literature.
The description of Chase throughout this coming-of-age story illustrates how Kya views everything through the lens of the marsh, “nature.” Chase owns a bright blue boat, which he uses to woo women, including Kya. She likens this boat to the bright feathers a creature of the marsh would use to attract a mate. His harmonica playing is also compared to the loud noises used in animal mating rituals.
This brings me to the foremost character in the book. It is not Kya, but the marsh itself. The book states repeatedly that the marsh has become Kya’s mother; it protects, nurtures, and inspires her. The lush descriptions of wildlife and flora leap off the page, and, swathed in mists, the marsh assumes a magical, otherworldly quality.
She also attempts to understand her mother’s abandonment through the lens of nature as well. She searches and finds numerous examples of how the creatures of the wild abandon their litter for the greater good, which furthers evolutionary advancement or survival of the species in some way. In this way, Kya is finally able to find peace with her traumatic childhood.
It also leads her to murder Chase. When he comes violent toward her, even hunting her down in the marsh and attempting sexual assault, her animal nature emerges, and she uses the lessons the marsh has taught her to meet the threat he poses. One of those lessons is, for better or for worse, to kill or be killed. She views Chase as a predator and treats him accordingly – without remorse. Taking back her shell necklace represents Kya taking back her heart and soul, which is rooted in nature and the marsh, from Chase.
One of the novel’s primary themes is the discussion of prejudice. The racist abuse suffered by Jumpin and Mabel parallels that prejudice endured by Kya, the “Marsh Girl,” throughout the book, beginning in Kya’s childhood. Kya’s court case and trial echo that of To Kill a Mockingbird, minus the outcome. However, what seemed like a straightforward story about prejudice, with a happy ending for Kya, is quickly exposed as something else on the final page.
This is the story of survival, and how the natural world provides the blueprint for that survival. Nature is not kind, just as it can lead a mother to abandon her young or lead a woman such as Kya to murder her lover. It is not a discussion of right or wrong at all – nature is not right or wrong, it just is the way it is. And it can be cruel. We cannot change it, only observe.
All great novels are “gray,” not black and white, serving up endless interpretations for the reader.
This complexity and depth render “Where the Crawdads Sing” a great novel indeed. It is a classic, and one I highly recommend.
Having read and loved the source material, I look forward to watching the film adaptation starring Daisy Edgar-Jones!