“abandoned, hungry and cold”
North Carolina 1952 – We meet little six-year-old Kya Clark on the day her mother walks out of their marsh ‘shack’ for the last time. Covered in bruises, Kya’s mother has left her drunken, abusive husband and five children. In the weeks that follow, the four older children also leave to find greener pastures elsewhere – leaving Kya and her father alone in the shack. Her father, when drinking to excess, often goes away for days at a time. Kya is alone, fending for herself. We weep for her as she tries to exist on lumpy grits that she has cooked herself and Crisco shortening spread on saltines. When the truant officers come for her, she goes to school for just one day. The other children laugh at her attire and the fact that she is barefoot. She does not return to school, and no one follows up. She knows no affection and spends her every waking moment either tending to the chores or out on her beloved marsh. She maintains hope that one day her mother will return for her…
“Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size.”
One time, when her father took her into town, a young girl sees her and attempts to befriend Kya. The girl’s mother quickly grabs the girl away, admonishing her that Kya is ‘dirty’ and not to go near her. The townspeople call her “The Marsh Girl”.
“strange and feral barefoot girl”
Kya is conflicted. She hides from other people, yet she yearns for physical touch, affection, and love.
She loves the marsh and all that inhabits it. She collects feathers and shells. She paints the beauty of nature that she finds on her doorstep.
“Being alone was a feeling so vast it echoed”
Eventually, there comes a time when Kya’s father no longer returns. She is alone. Growing tall, svelte, brawny, and… illiterate. She keeps herself by selling mussels and smoked fish to the old man who sells her gas for the boat.
When Kya is fourteen, someone leaves her a beautiful feather on a mossy stump near her shack. The eyebrow feather from a blue heron. Delighted, Kya watches the old stump every day and finds several more treasures left for her. Eventually, she meets the boy who has left her the gifts. He will become very important to Kya.
North Carolina 1969 – A local man named Chase Andrews has been found murdered beneath the fire tower in the marsh. A man from a prominent family, a star quarterback, and a married man who is also known to be a womanizer. There is no evidence – no footprints, no tire tracks, no fingerprints…
The locals speculate who could have killed Chase Andrews. Maybe it was the ‘crazy woman’ who lives out on the marsh…
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is written in beautiful prose that is very hard to read. I found myself having little reading ‘rests’, especially during the first chapters. My heart broke for little Kya in her solitary plight. She was such a forgotten soul. During this time there were very few social agencies that would help – a time when segregation was still practiced, a time before ‘welfare’ checks, a time when a tiny girl could get lost right in front of everyone’s noses.
Not many readers could even imagine Kya’s life. She was socially isolated. Completely self-reliant from the age of six. She lived her life with no instruction, no telephone, no electricity. She never had a birthday party, never had a Christmas tree, dinner, or gifts.
I was very surprised to learn that this is a first novel. The author has published a few non-fiction books before this, so obviously she has honed her writing skills before her fiction debut. The characterization and imagery were nothing short of outstanding.
This novel highlights the strength and resiliency of the human spirit as well as the more negative aspects of prejudice and bigotry. It is a book about loss, hope, friendship, and human kindness. It clearly demonstrates the profound impact of social isolation.
This literary fiction novel was as much of a treasure as Kya’s beloved feathers. A rare treat for fans of the genre. A masterpiece. Highly recommended!
I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin via Edelweiss for reading enjoyment and review purposes.
Delia Owens is the co-author of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa including Cry of the Kalahari.
She has won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing and has been published in Nature, The African Journal of Ecology, and many others.
She currently lives in Idaho. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.