Review: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is a nostalgic debut novel

by Florida Huff | 2/12/19 2:35am

I grew up in the south, and some of my most vivid childhood memories took place on the sandy shores of the Atlantic or in the pristine saltwater marshes on the Carolina coast. I was always captivated by the raw beauty in these environments: sunlight bending through Spanish moss, the great arc of a blue heron in flight, hundreds of fiddler crabs scuttling across the mud flats and the gentle lapping of waves at low tide. The sheer abundance of life clustered within the marshes always astounded me. They were their own little sanctuary, sheltered from concrete high-rises and boisterous tourists, having just the right conditions to foster an entire ecosystem. 

When I first read the description for “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens, I was suffering from homesickness and desperate for a taste of my southern roots. Set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina from the 1940s through the 1960s, “Where the Crawdads Sing” checked all my boxes for the perfect winterim novel: historical fiction, a female-centered narrative and a way to satisfy my craving for home. I picked up the novel on my way to visit a friend in North Carolina, and I was immediately hooked by the emotive nature of the protagonist’s story. The lushness of Owens’ prose rendered “Where the Crawdads Sing” utterly enthralling; I couldn’t put it down. 

“Where the Crawdads Sing” depicts the coming-of-age story of the “Marsh Girl,” a secluded young woman named Kya living in the marshes of Barkley Cove, North Carolina. Kya grows up with an abusive father and a mother caught between taking care of her children and pursuing a life free of violence and poverty. When Kya’s mother ventures into town dressed in her finest clothes and fails to return, Kya faces the first of many abandonments in her young life. Soon the rest of Kya’s family leaves Barkley Cove, and Kya at nine years old, illiterate and barely able to cook grits, is forced to fend for herself.

Despite all odds, resilient and resourceful Kya finds a way of life in the marsh. Mother Nature becomes her new mother: a nurturing presence, a great protector from the harsh world outside Kya’s marsh home and a tutor in lieu of formal education. At age 15, Kya falls in love with a local boy named Tate, who teaches her how to read. When Tate leaves for college, Kya finds herself abandoned again, and she retreats even further into her marsh haven. But several years later, Kya’s lover Chase Andrews, Barkley Cove’s golden boy, is found dead at the foot of the town’s water tank, and Kya can no longer keep the outside world from infringing upon the life she’s created for herself. 

By far, the most outstanding quality of “Where the Crawdads Sing” is Owens’ ability to seamlessly capture the raw beauty of the Outer Banks. Although “Where the Crawdads Sing” is Owens’ first fiction novel, Owens is the author of three nonfiction books detailing her career as a wildlife scientist in Africa, and her skills in nature writing definitely transferred to this novel. I finished “Where the Crawdads Sing” feeling like I had spent a blissful few days in the marshes, utterly transported back to my childhood days of spying for herons and catching sand crabs with my bare hands.

But I was equally swept away by Kya’s story, whose rawness took my breath away at moments. I empathized with Kya’s curiosity, strength and natural intellect. I ached at her profound sadness over the loss of her family, her disillusionment with love and her inescapable identity as an outsider. I’ve read countless stories with female protagonists, but the emotional depth of Kya’s narrative stood out to me and kept me turning the pages, eager to delve deeper into her story.

“Where the Crawdad Sings” emphasizes the importance of human connection, as Kya’s personal relationships throughout the novel take on a greater weight due to the extent of her isolation. I found Kya’s familial relationships most compelling; although they are gut-wrenching, these relationships authentically portray the devastating and lingering effects of abuse, poverty and neglect. In contrast, the love story between Kya and Tate is timeless and sweet. Although their relationship reads like a young adult romance at times, it’s age-appropriate for the teenage characters, and the patience and eagerness with which Tate teaches Kya how to read gives their connection a greater depth. 

The novel alternates timelines throughout the majority of the novel, switching from Kya’s childhood in the 1940s and 1950s to the investigation of Chase Andrews’ murder in 1969. I wasn’t initially very drawn to the murder mystery narrative in the novel, as I was impatient to return to Kya’s story. Overall, I don’t think the murder storyline in “Where the Crawdads Sing” was as well-executed as it could have been; the detectives were bland, the investigation was slow to pick up and this section couldn’t measure up to the vivacity of the rest of the novel. However, Owens does an excellent job of building tension throughout Kya’s trial, and by the reading of the verdict my heart was beating out of my chest. The trial reconciles Kya’s reputation as a feral marsh-dweller with the reserved and intellectual version of Kya readers have come to know, tying in Kya’s coming-of-age story with the novel’s salacious murder mystery.  

“Where the Crawdads Sing” drew me in with its promise to nurture my nostalgia for home, and the novel most certainly delivered on that promise. But by the end of the novel, Kya’s story touched me just as much as Owens’ ode to the marshes. The novel is immersive on all fronts: a fascinating story about love, loss and survival, an authentic depiction of the intricacies of rural Southern life and a homage to the uncontainable beauty of the Outer Banks.