I love the outdoors and being in nature, and I sometimes wonder if I missed my calling. So when I found three non-fiction books written by Delia and Mark Owens over a decade ago, it was like I'd found my parallel dream life that might have been possible if I'd only been more daring and adventurous. I read Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savannah, and I loved them. I would have continued reading books about Mark and Delia's adventurous lives indefinitely, and I was disappointed that I never found another book quite like those again.
Where the Crawdads Sing is Delia Owens's first book of fiction. The book begins with six-year-old Kya watching her beloved mother walk down the lane from their shack in the North Carolina swamp. Her mother is fleeing extreme abuse from her alcoholic husband. Without their mother holding the family together, Kya's older siblings also quickly flee their tyrant of a father. When Kya is ten years old her father disappears and she is truly alone.
The townspeople already look down on the "marsh people" and instead of helping her, Kya is disparaged wherever she goes. Jumpin'--the Black owner of the nearby marina gas shop--and his wife are the only ones that look out for her. Kya is incredibly lonely and wonders why everyone chose to leave her. She can't trust anyone. When she is not exploring the marsh, she spends her time running from truancy officers and fearing social services.
The book jumps back and forth between Kya's childhood in the 1950's and 1969 when the town's Golden Boy is found dead in the swamp. The sheriff's office slowly goes about investigating, and some of the evidence seems to point to Kya. I was immediately and understandably worried that the blame would fall on Kya. As an outsider in a small, southern town that already thought badly of her, I also did not expect a fair trial if it came to that.
One large part of the book is the nature that surrounds Kya, and her connection with it. Because of her complete isolation, the only thing she has is the birds and other creatures around her. I've only recently gotten into learning about birds, so I enjoyed this part of the book immensely. I loved the descriptions of the animals, grasses, shells, and other natural beauty of the area, and I appreciated Kya's growing knowledge of where she lived.
The New York Times called this "a painfully beautiful first novel that is at once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative[,]* and a celebration of nature." I found this novel immediately intriguing. Kya's isolation and loneliness as well as her fear of getting hurt was well done. The careful inclusion of birds and the wonders of nature elevated this book beyond your typical murder mystery.
***SPOILERS*** One day, Kya gets lost in the swamp on her father's motorboat. She runs into Tate, her brother's old friend, who shows her the way back home. Tate is a kind, gentle soul who feels badly for Kya. He teaches her to read, and brings her books from home. As Kya grows up, they become more attached to each other and it becomes more romantic. Tate is Kya's entire world. He is her only real human connection, and he basically taught her everything she knows. But then he leaves for college and doesn't come back as promised.
This one last abandonment was understandable from Tate's point of view but absolutely heartbreaking for Kya. Eventually she continues her life as before, but that little bit of her willing to risk her heart for that connection with Tate was shattered when he left. Eventually she runs into Chase. She knows she doesn't care for him like Tate. However, he is good looking and pays attention to her, something that is irresistible for someone as lonely as she is. Eventually, Kya imagines a life with him, with family, and with acceptance from the town. It is only when she reads about his engagement to another woman that she understands she could never really be with him.
Tate comes back to the marsh after graduate school. He's never stopped loving Kya, and he now sees how they could have a life together. However, Kya can't trust him anymore, and continues living on her own. One day, Chase surprises Kya as she's drawing. He beats her up and attempts to rape her. She manages to fight back, but now Chase is angry and starting to terrorize her. It is not long after this that his body is found.
Although I loved this book, I did have some problems with the ending. Chase's character changed rather drastically in order to justify his murder. He was always self-centered and a bit of an asshole, but he was patient and generally kind to Kya for a long time. Then he suddenly becomes a violent rapist with revenge tendencies. I also always get annoyed when we are reading the story through a character's viewpoint, but we don't get the information of whether she murdered someone or not. It feels like the author is not playing fair. Finally, I was disappointed that Kya did end up murdering Chase. I realize she had limited options because of his violence and popularity, but I wanted the town to be right about finding her not guilty. And after she made that incredibly elaborate plan for killing him, why did she take the shell necklace? ***END SPOILERS***
*I'm sorry. I know what I did here is annoying and distracting, but I just can't help myself.