IF YOU MISSED one of 2019’s best-selling books, now is the time to read Delia Owen’s fiction debut, “Where the Crawdad’s Sing,” set along the coastline of North Carolina.
Owens, a wildlife scientist, was born in Thomasville, Ga., and grew up loving the wilds of South Georgia. Her debut introduces us to a similar child, Kya, who is four years old when we meet her. By the time Kya is 10, Kya’s mother, brother and abusive father have deserted her and she is living alone in a shack, learning to navigate the brackish waterways to survive on her own.
Kya develops a love for nature as her only comfort in a world where she has been abandoned. The nearby townspeople call her Marsh Girl, a legendary wild child of the marshes. The few who encounter her make fun of the poor, dirty child when she attempts to come into town for supplies and school.
Eventually she fully retreats, deepening the folklore about her, only talking to the kind man nicknamed Jumpin’ at the bait and supply store who pays her for mussels and fish she forages in order to purchase grits, candles and gas for her daddy’s boat. Set in the 1960s, Jumpin’ is a black man regulated to live away from town, as well. His wife takes up a collection in her community to provide Kya with clothing, and the two become parental figures, even though Kya sees them but once a week.
The only other person in Kya’s life is Nate, a friend of her brother’s, who helps her learn the waterways, as well as how to read. She is a sponge, and despite the town thinking she is like an animal, Kya becomes very well read as she develops a serious passion for her marsh world. What few relationships she has helps define Kya and set her on a path.
As the story takes us through Kya’s life, it flashes to 1969, when the town’s star quarterback Chase Andrews is found dead. Her story is interwoven with Chase’s mysterious death, culminating with the two becoming linked toward the end of the book. Was Kya involved? How did she know Chase? Will the townspeople ever accept her, or even know she has become a name in the scientific world?
The book will tug at your heartstrings as you watch Kya grow up, mostly alone, and then lead you into a murder mystery where you will begin to question the few characters you come to understand. The book starts as slowly with Kya’s tale and her solitude in the marsh, but as she ages it begins to gain momentum and you begin to question whodunit. By the time you are halfway through, you will not want to put the book down.
This is a book just ripe for your next book group and will definitely stir up the conversation pot. You’ll be focusing on the child, the racial tensions of the time period, how quickly people are to judge rather than support, and, of course, the murder. At times Owens waxes a bit too poetic, obviously a lover of nature and poetry, but it is still a fabulous debut set in the South.