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.
When the movie was slated for release, early summer 2022, an article appeared in The Atlantic (see here) about Delia Owens, and man was I floored over what I was hearing in the cultural rumor mill. It still astounds me, months later. Here’s the thing: Owens is wanted in Africa (as well as her son and former (?) husband, for questioning in an on-camera murder. It’s a crazy story and you can read about yourself, but it turns out Owens and co. had fled Zimbabwe long ago when the government became suspicious of their involvement in anti-poaching operations and also saw an ABC special which featured footage of said murder. Years later, a first Atlantic article revealed suspicions that it was Owens’ son who had committed the murder (off-screen) and that her husband had been violently involved in poacher (and trespasser) policing. The article that I just read (and pointed you to) talks about more suspicions that all of the Owenses were involved in militant conservationism and disregarding any local authority, including murder, abuse, backwater justice, abuse of volunteers, disposal of at least one body, hiding evidence, concealing the truth, racism, etc. Now, this would be alarming enough to remove Owens from the top of my author heroines list, but the thing that is so bat-crap crazy is all of this in light of the novel that she wrote and is currently, ridiculously famous for. And I can’t emphasize this enough without spoilers, so be warned. SPOILERS AHEAD. I just can’t fathom how a woman who likely either hid or even participated in summary justice that led to murder could have written, published, and then GOT FAMOUS on a book that is a thinly veiled “metaphor” for her own experience (and herself as a character) with issues of murder, (in)justice, and a hierarchy of morals. How could she PUT OUT THERE a book where the protagonist murdered someone, got away with it(!), and then the reader, by the end, is supposed to (and very frequently does) feel that this person is justified in having ignored and then bucked the judicial system!! The whole thing is so incredibly ballsy and twisted that I just can’t…! Of course, I don’t know if she really did anything, but the book certainly makes her look pretty guilty, as does plenty of other evidence. It’s not like she’s turning herself over to the authorities (though I could sympathize with that if I knew more about the Zimbabwean justice system and it turned out to be undemocratic and unfair. I have no idea.). If you want to know any more about this (including how strange this makes her writing Where the Crawdads Sing), then read the article HERE. (It also has spoilers.)
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.
UPDATE: I went to see the movie this week. It took me a hot second because I was travelling and then the movie was sold out when I finally went to see it. Which will tell you this: it is doing well as a summer blockbuster. I will agree with everything I suspected about the movie, above. However, my daughter and I were both not expecting much (the reviews are not incredible) and so were pleasantly surprised. The movie very closely follows the book, and actually, hardly misses anything. It is well-acted. It is pretty. It is interesting. I thought characters could have been more developed, though the romance had enough sizzle. Could have had more. My main problems were this: the place did NOT appear to be NC. (It was not. It was New Orleans. And they didn’t figure out how to make it more NC.) And when this is such a large part of the story… Also, a little bit of awkward CG, including the first scenes with the blue heron? That is no bird that I have ever seen in NC, or maybe even in the USA. It was so bright and muscular. I see blue herons all the time. But besides that, a decent movie that would be better probably if you hadn’t read the book simply because it’s a murder mystery. There was room for improvement and creativity, but basically hit the nail on the head as a movie. The book is, as predicted, a different animal because of the nature of the writing.