This one is a wonderful book for our challenge–the saltwater coastal marsh where Kya lives is a vibrant vital part of her life, and an integral part of the story. The marsh birds are present not just in their calls, but in their individual feathers and characteristics–some of them incredibly detailed: the crest feathers of a male cardinal, the colored neck feathers of a red-throated loon, the red spot on a herring gull’s bill, the predatory deceptions of female fireflies.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting comes to life through the writing, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are in North Carolina right now.
Where the Crawdads Sing is Delia Owens’ first novel, and, as with Julia Franks (author of Over the Plain Houses), I really hope we get more from her. It’s a lush, gorgeous book that totally immerses the reader in the sawgrass and palmetto of the North Carolina swamps. (Though my husband points out that there is little mention of the pervasive mosquitoes and other biting insects of the marshes!) North Carolina’s wetlands are extensive–the link has interactive maps of locations, photos, curriculum materials, differences between saltwater and freshwater marshes, and lots of information about the flora and fauna–including the birds but also the carnivorous plants which would have been appropriate to Kya’s story!
Unfortunately, I am listening to this book on Audible, which means I don’t have a physical copy to use to share quotes with you here. It also means I’m having a difficult time keeping track of the birds in the book–and there are many! But I’ll do my best to convey my thoughts.
Owens does an amazing job showing us Kya’s love for the marshes, her attention to detail that makes her a superb self-taught naturalist and artist–in the tradition of Audubon and Peterson, whose names still grace guidebooks to the birds that are used today. Owens is just as careful with Kya’s emotions–her feelings of abandonment and loneliness, and how they influence her decisions–particularly in her interactions with Chase and Tate. And her anxiety about leaving the marsh or interacting with people–as in the descriptions of the trip to Asheville. I loved her observations about how the sunset on the marsh is a solid, predictable thing because of the flat horizon, but the sunset in the mountains is changeable as you move.
There’s a very brief but wonderful interview with author Delia Owens on the Books a Million blog, where Owens says this about her choice of setting:
I chose this wilderness because I grew up in South Georgia and was familiar with the bright marsh and darker swamp. My mother and I canoed through these waterways, camped on these shores. Writing about it came easily.
There’s a longer, more detailed interview over at Zibby Owens’ Moms Don’t Have Time to Read blog and podcast, in which she discusses some of Delia Owens’ research work in Africa into social interactions among females of various species there, and how it influenced her book.
With Where the Crawdads Sing, her knowledge comes through loud and clear and it’s a treasure trove of marsh flora and fauna, showcasing her background as a zoologist (Owens has a Ph.D in Animal Behavior, according to her website). But it’s a great story as well. The story of Kya’s life in the 1950s and 1960s is intertwined with that of the investigation into the murder of Chase Andrews in late 1969. At first we have no idea whether or how Chase and Kya are connected, but as Kya’s side of the story develops, we learn more about her and about why someone might have killed him. We also see how the townspeople treat the “Marsh Girl,” and how that influences the investigation.
In terms of location, if you’ve taken a look at the North Carolina wetlands link, you’ve seen that there are many, many wetlands all over the state. Kya’s marsh is a saltwater marsh, which puts it close to the coast, but there still are quite a few it could be. The nearest town, Barkley Cove, is fictional, but a plot point involves Kya traveling by bus to Greenville–a journey that could be done multiple times within the span of a few days. When Kya mentions the trip to Tate, he tells her it’s a trip of one hour and twenty minutes. Google maps says a bus from Wilmington, North Carolina to Greenville, North Carolina would take about four hours, so Barkley Cove would be a bit more than halfway up the coast between the two cities. My guess would be that it’s somewhere in the area of Croatan National Forest, though it’s also possible that it’s in the marshes to the west of Nag’s Head–in or near the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. (A National Forest Service fire tower features in the book as well.) Either way, despite the proximity to the Outer Banks, the marshes in Where the Crawdads Sing are a far cry from Ginger Fowler’s beach mansion at Nag’s Head (in Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons).
As I said above, because I’m listening to an audio version, I don’t have a complete list of birds for our Life List of Birds in Books–which is a shame because there are so many! And Kya’s collections and paintings are–as Tate points out–a guidebook to the marsh. But I’ve jotted down a few as I’ve heard them: American Crow, Northern Cardinal, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Red-Throated Loon, Herring Gulls, Cooper’s Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Snow Goose, along with the occasional unspecified bird–pelicans and night-herons.
The food in Where the Crawdads Sing is pure Southern food–little Kya teaches herself to make grits and survives on them and the pickings left in Ma’s garden–mostly turnips and their greens to begin with. And she picks mussels and sells them to Jumpin’ at the marina gas station. Even after she has a range installed, she still prefers to cook her cornbread and beans, or fatback and biscuits, on the woodstove.
Poet Amanda Hamilton’s works appear scattered throughout the book, mixed in with a few others, including “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” as well as works by Emily Dickinson and Galway Kinnell. But Amanda Hamilton seems like a kindred spirit to Kya–her descriptions of loneliness and isolation seem to echo what we’ve observed in Kya’s thoughts and experiences–which makes sense, because she’s a creation of Delia Owens. (Don’t Google her or her works until you’ve finished the book, as most links don’t have the text of the poems but do contain spoilers.)
I’ve read several reviews which complain that Kya’s voice and knowledge seem to differ greatly in age depending on the topic–they object that with her lack of education she shouldn’t have been able to write guidebooks or poetry, or they contrast that with her “immaturity” when talking about abandonment and isolation. But it didn’t seem out of character to me at all. There’s a term for it–asynchronous development–and it’s common in gifted kids, but also would have been natural given Kya’s situation. You don’t have to look very deeply into today’s parenting resources to realize how important social skills are to a child’s development–but for years Kya had no interaction with other children (she only spent one day in school in her life), and very few dealings with adults–either as a child herself or as a young woman. It’s not at all unrealistic for her character to be emotionally and socially immature. Especially since social skills have to be practiced and learned through interactions with actual people–so many of the “rules” are unwritten, and people are so varied that it takes a lot of experimentation to figure out what works with different types of people.
Overall Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a fantastic read for North Carolina! So far, I’d pick this one for the coastal or eastern part of the state, and Over the Plain Houses for the western mountains. Both of these new authors are superb at writing settings! We’ve got more to come and we’ve set the bar quite high!