Where the Crawdads Sing is Best When It's Wild

Where the Crawdads Sing (2018)
By Delia Owens
G. P. Putnam and Sons, 384 pages.

Where the Crawdads Sing was among the top-selling novels of 2018, helped enormously by an endorsement from actress Reese Witherspoon, who has secured the right to make a film adaptation. You can also find effusive, even worshipful praise from those who post reviews to Amazon and Good Reads. Does it live up to its hype? It depends upon which part of the book one means.

The bulk of the story takes place between 1952-1969. It centers on Katherine “Kya” Clark, whom we first meet at age 6. She lives in the wetlands of coastal North Carolina and hails from what is derisively called poor white trash. When Kya observes her mother walking down the dirt track in her “fake alligator shoes” carrying a case, Kya quickly surmises that she might not be coming back. For the next 4 years she witnesses her older siblings leave home, including Jodie to whom she is closest. Poverty can grind you down, and pa has become an abusive alcoholic who disappears for long stretches until one day he stops coming home at all. From this point on Kya is on her own.

This is the first of several improbable things a reader must accept. Locals whisper about “Marsh Girl,” who occasionally comes to town (the fictional Barkley Cove) to buy supplies, but few ever venture to the ramshackle cabin where she lives. (You’d need a boat or an exceedingly rugged vehicle to get there.) The school truant officer manages to track her down and forces her to attend one day of school, where other pupils make fun of her. This will be her only formal education; Kya is swamp smart and knows how to hide.

How does she survive? That’s where improbable thing number two comes into play. Kya digs mussels and fishes from the small boat her father left, and sells them to “Jumpin’,” a black man who operates a fuel, fish, and bait shop in the bayou. Also, he, his wife Mabel, and a deep-in-the-woods black church supply the charity that white Christians only think about for an hour on Sundays. Plus Kya comes to know the marsh in all its rhythms, mysteries, and abundance.

The only one to breach her watery fortress signals in ways only one versed in nature would know: by leaving rare shells and feathers by an old stump Kya passes on her travels. He is Tate Walker, a boy her own age who loves the marsh almost as much as Kya, and will eventually teach her to read. In one of the book’s least believable passages, Tate will also explain menstruation to Kya, a device we are supposed to believe because Tate harbors dreams of becoming a marine biologist. (Huh?)

Despite credulity issues, these sections of the book are so beautifully evocative that we can conjure mental images of the marsh and metaphorically lick the saltwater from the pages. Owens wrote three non-fiction books on African wildlife before penning Crawdads, her debut novel, and possesses a gift for making us feel both the wonders and terrors of nature. It’s when she takes us beyond childhood that things become problematic. As Kya and Tate get older, Crawdads drifts toward contrivance and the cheap sentimentality of a YA novel. When Tate goes off to college and stops coming around, isn’t he just like the teens on the beach that make fun of her? Or worse, just the latest to abandon her?

By the time she 23, Kya is deep into poetry, but is also a self-trained evolutionary biologist familiar with John Maynard Smith’s “sneaky fuckers” study of how the male of a species often assumes a subordinate role to mate with a female. (It often goes badly. I’d say ask a male praying mantis, except you can’t for various reasons!) Kya is also recognized as a budding ethnologist for her keen observations and beautiful and exacting illustrations of swamp ecology. She has even been out of the marsh to meet with a publisher. Still, she’s at least 50% feral/socially inept, so how does she negotiate the attention shown her by the studly Chase Andrews, a former star high school quarterback who comes from the closest thing Barkley Cove has to a bourgeoisie: one that owns a Western Auto store.

When Chase is found dead at the base of a tower, Kya is charged with his murder, though there are no footprints and she has an airtight alibi. Owens goes full Harper Lee for courtroom scenes that feature a deus ex machina resolution. The central mystery isn’t hard to unravel if you’ve paid attention to the book’s internal themes and the trial serves to make us begin to see the various ways in which the book’s internal logic is 21st century, not that of the 1950s and 1960s. Take the book’s race relations. How likely is it that a black community would reach out to a white girl during the age of Jim Crow? Could Kya become an ethnologist without training or a powerful mentor/sponsor? There is also the matter of a murder investigation that's more CSI than what was done in he 1960s. Nor is it feasible that a district attorney would try a white girl when there was no physical evidence–not even in 1960s North Carolina.

Owens does give us a few twists here and there: revelations about Kya’s family, a nice play on “broken token” legends, and an alter ego reveal. Still, after a while the flashback/flash forward/flash sideways structure wears thin, as do simplistic good/bad characterizations. If the last few post-1969 chapters feel like tack-ons to get us to a resolution, that’s because they are.

The phrase “where the crawdads* sing” references a place where the “critters” (Kya’s phrase) remain in an Edenic wild space. It’s also a metaphor for how I felt about the novel. To invoke an old rock song, Kya was born to be wild. When Owens tames her, even ever so slightly, both Kya and the marsh become more ordinary and the fireflies dim. Read the novel for its elegant prose, but be skeptical of Ms. Witherspoon’s gushing adulation.

Rob Weir

* If you don’t know, a crawdad–also called a crayfish or crawfish–is a crustacean that looks like a shrimp crossed with a miniature lobster. They are quite tasty.

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