Sometimes a book just haunts me, before I even know what it is, let alone read it. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was one such book. I believe I first heard of it at writing group, where we share what we have recently read. I think I remember the share being favorable. Then I saw it at the store. Then it kept popping up in ads. Then someone said they would like to read it and I bought it for not one, but two other people. Eventually I caved and bought one for myself. After all, it was recommended to the world by Reese Witherspoon. Everyone’s read it, says the New York Times.
Delia Owens has an interesting story, herself. She is an older woman, and she has written other books in tandem with her husband, but they were memoirs based on their life together as zoologists, largely in Africa. She now lives in the South, though I’m unclear about that being in Georgia or in North Carolina, where Crawdads takes place. It is interesting that this is her breakthrough novel and she’s already lived a life full of other things. It is also interesting that she is a zoologist, and that plays right into her reading of the world as portrayed in Crawdads.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a mystery novel. It is about Kya, a poor, rural kid living out in the coastal marshes of 1950s/1960s North Carolina. When she is abandoned by her entire family at around age ten, she has to fend for herself in an out-of-the-way shack with very few resources. The townies are cruel and prejudiced, so she carves out a life of solitude, interacting with people only when she can’t avoid them. She’s odd, she’s intense, she’s smart, she’s beautiful, and she’s intimately connected to the land and the animals around her, making her a target of legend, suspicion, and crime. While half the chapters tell Kya’s story from the time of her being abandoned and her consequent two, coming-of-age relationships, every other chapter takes place in the “present” of the book, in 1969. Chase Owens, town sweetheart, has been found dead out in the marsh. At first, it looks like an accident, but then the careful cops find a lack of evidence that makes them suspect a cover up and murder. The two stories jump back and forth until we start seeing them weave together, about halfway through the book, and come to a conclusion together.
I don’t read a whole lotta mystery. If all mystery books were this good, however, I would probably read more. This book is, I suppose, a genre bender, anyhow. To call it a mystery is selling it a little short, as it is also literary, historical, pastoral, and romance. Some people might cringe at me calling it “literary,” and I admit that it is a bit cheesier than most literary novels, but the writing is beautiful, lyrical, and the content is a bit of social history mixed with an in-depth exploration of a memorable character and her psyche, her twisted connection to the world.
If you can’t tell, I did like the novel and I would recommend it. I am having a hard time separating the reading from my experience of it, since I began the book as we drove out to a small town on the North Carolina coast and read it over the next two days between the beach and a vintage chair in an-honest-to-goodness 1950s ranch. I did not plan it that way, but it makes me wonder if people do plan readings like that. That could be a travel agency: reading adventures in the place of the setting, complete with tours and food. (Now, that really is a thought.)
The book is nice, but more than anything it is compelling. Kya is compelling. Her story is compelling. And with the murder mystery thrown in there, it makes it a real page-turner. Who dunnit!?! And why? And how? And will Kya get sacrificed on the altar of bigotry along the way? (Also, will Kya find love? Will she find family? Will she be able to keep nature and sanity?) I would read it again, and I have recommended it to others. I often feel the tension between an ending that is trite and popular and one that is more complicated, realistic, and modern. I felt that tension here, but Owens went with an ending that I think most people will find fulfilling.
While the writing is nice, it’s the kind of nice that remains un-distracting. It’s also the kind of nice that waxes poetic on nature. These are the only two things I underlined:
“When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just …. It is not a morality, but a simple math” (p8).
“A clutch of women’s the most tender, most tough place on Earth” (p150).
Witherspoon is now saying she’s going to make a movie from the book, which came as absolutely no surprise. And while it might actually make a great movie, I am a little sad to see this one go to the screen. There is something about it that is important in the written form. The pacing, the jumping back and forth, the painting of scenes with language that is both reverent and loving, the slow unfolding of the girl and then the woman. I feel like there will be loss in this translation.