October 2019 – Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
As readers, it is always interesting to delve into a book by a first-time novelist. Does the author’s style capture your attention? Can you see any similarities with other authors’ works? Are the characters stock, stereotype, or fresh? Is the book an easy read? Is it hard to put down? For many of Zion’s readers, the answer to those questions concerning October’s selection Where the Crawdads Sing was yes. Author Delia Owens is an award-winning nature writer, a wildlife scientist who spent years in Africa studying elephants, lions, and other animals. With her first novel, she chose to showcase the marsh land of the southeast U.S. as the setting of a gripping coming-of-age tale containing pathos, bias, violence, resilience, triumph, and possibly murder.
In the late 1950’s Kya Clark is growing up in the North Carolina marsh land thanks to her father’s PTSD and alcoholism. With little money, the family is trapped between his abusive presence and frequent absences, and his violence drives away her older siblings. Her mother does her best to provide a nurturing environment, but is finally beaten to the edge of madness and walks away, abandoning Kya and her brother. Her brother teaches her practical skills about boating and harvesting the marsh’s resources until he also reaches his limit of physical abuse. At age 6, Kya finds herself alone with no one to care for her unless her father is present and in a good mood. She is bullied and ostracized on the only day she attempts to attend school and now dodges truant officers by hiding in the marsh. When her father fails to return from one of his benders, Kya must find a way to exist. She instinctively keeps a low profile when in town, knowing that people refer to her as the “swamp girl” and treat her with derision and suspicion.
With the help of Jumpin’, an older black man who owns the gas station where Kya gets gas for her boat, and his wife, Mabel, who gives Kya hand-me-down clothing and advice, the little girl builds an existence in the remote marsh. She digs bags of mussels and sells them to Jumpin to earn money for basic supplies and gas. ’Through trial and error and what she remembers of her mother’s teaching, she learns to cook on a woodstove for which she gathers downed tree limbs. She occupies her time with studying the marsh and its birds and animals. She begins collecting items and storing them in the shack she calls home, sketching their natural surroundings as a way of identifying them. Meeting Tate, a friend of her brother who is equally fascinated with the marsh, Kya begins to explore human relationships. Like any abused animal, she has erected protective walls and must learn to trust. Tate is endlessly patient and teaches Kya to read, encouraging her to label her collections. Although physically attracted, Tate chooses a college path to eventually become an environmental scientist. When he leaves, Kya again feels abandoned and turns to the marsh for comfort and lessons about relationships. Her unusual looks attract the attention of the local football jock who uses her for some action on the side while pursuing an eligible young lady in town. Kya learns of his engagement from a newspaper and is hit again with betrayal after daring to open her heart. Meanwhile, Tate has told his professors about the extensive collection Kya has compiled, and the information and drawings are turned into a book. The “swamp girl” is now a published author and recognized authority on the marsh land. Then two young boys discover the jock’s body in the marsh at the base of an old fire tower. His mother points a suspicious finger at Kya, but what really happened?
Ms. Owens’ flowing, descriptive writing style can make the reader feel as if the marsh surrounds you, and that Kya, Tate, and the other characters are very real. Yet that reality was the downfall of the novel for some of our readers. It was very hard to credit a 6-year old girl for steering a boat, cooking anything edible, and, most of all, being able to dodge truant officials. Surely someone from the school would have persisted with the process and eventually caught up with Kya, we reasoned. How did she not have yaws or rickets or any one of several vitamin deficiency illnesses with the crazy diet she followed? Why would she have taken a bus to Ashville (which was not a destination in the 1960’s) rather than Raleigh, which is closer? If her mother was the caring person described at the beginning of the book, how did she just leave Kya and her brother? How could Kya possibly have learned to read so fast, and why would Tate have given her a book called “The Sand County Almanac” when her reading skills were so slight?
And yet, are we not somehow looking through the lens of present day when we ask those questions? In some areas of Appalachia today, young children are expected to assume adult responsibilities. They manage to survive vitamin and diet deficiencies. Their relationships with schools are of the adversarial sort, and school officials are overwhelmed with caseloads. It is not inconceivable that someone in the 1950’s would have slipped through the cracks. With the marsh as her only other focus, learning to read would have taken precedence in Kya’s daily life. Work hard enough at something, and you get better quickly. Why do mothers leave their children? How much violence and abuse can a woman endure before her motivation becomes self-preservation to the exclusion of her children? Not an easy question to answer then or now.
While Ms. Owens’ style drew the reader into the story, our readers could see comparisons to other books. Kya reminded us of Tara Westover in Educated, a real life young lady who never attended primary or high school but improbably managed to accumulate a college degree and become an author. Kya’s parents’ tortured lives were reminiscent of the parents in My Brilliant Career, which we read last month. The bias shown to African Americans brought to mind the culture in To Kill a Mockingbird. The law enforcement officials investigating the sports jock’s death seemed “Mayberryish” at times, eager to seize on a conveniently available suspect. “The Sand County Almanac” might seem an odd choice to give to someone only learning to read, but upon investigation it actually fits. Naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote “The Sand County Almanac” as a testament to the necessity for conservation of the natural world so human beings can continue to exist and thrive. Such a book would have held the interest of a budding naturalist. It may have also been a deliberate choice to underline the author’s life’s work – understanding the balance in nature and what it can teach us.
The best fiction reflects the reality of the times in which it is set, and this book did that beautifully. It captured the racial tensions of the time (in fact, some readers wondered at the beginning of the book if Kya was African American), the small town feel, the wrenching heartbreak of an abandoned child. While some readers felt the characters’ development appeared predictable and a little stereotypical (sports jock, bumbling sheriff), many felt they were wonderfully three-dimensional Certainly Ms. Owens has a lyrical quality in her writing that makes her book easy to read and hard to put down. If there are a few questionable details like Ashville, Tate’s superhuman gentlemanly behavior, and a 1960’s sports player wearing a shell necklace, they certainly do not take away from the story line. The author grew up in rural Georgia and her voice is authentic whether describing the landscape or the people. Her ability to draw the reader into the timelessness of the marsh, where life and death continue as they have for untold years and a parentless child can find a value system on which to base her life choices (questionable though some of them might seem to us), gives readers the chance to ponder how much of this natural life is disappearing and whether the solace such spaces can offer us will soon be a thing of the past. Beyond being an entertaining novel, the book gently asks the reader to think about how mankind developed its social mores, how much more development is needed, and how much the absence of natural ecosystems will affect us. Not bad for a first novel.
After an energetic discussion, two of our readers were neutral, three gave it a knuckle up, six gave it 1 thumb up, and three gave it 2 thumbs up. Next month, we meet to discuss The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.