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You Are What You Read: Where The Crawdads Sing

Amelia McTear on the book that made her appreciate the role nature plays in human happiness.

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Image Credit: Corsair, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a novel  that  truly captivated me. The Sunday Times Bestseller follows the unique and  isolated life led by Owens’ protagonist  Kya. Who, at the beginning of the novel, is a young, vulnerable girl, but this ends up as quite the opposite.

Given the immense popularity of the book (over 5 million copies have been sold worldwide) I was surprised to learn that this was Owens’ first novel. However, she has previously co-authored three internationally bestselling nonfiction books, which detail her experiences as a wildlife scientist in Africa, including Cry of the Kalahari. Owens’ background led me to understand the novel’s seamless blending of science, nature and fiction in a new light. It shows how Kya’s strong fascination with, and subsequent profound knowledge of, the natural world stems from that of the author herself. Set in the marshes of North Carolina, Owens tells a story a world away from my own life in London. Yet, I deeply connected with Kya and found myself rooting for her in the struggles  she is forced to face and overcome.

The novel incorporates two storylines which are gradually intertwined. In the main storyline, which follows Kya’s childhood, the reader sees Owens’ protagonist become increasingly isolated. She is first abandoned by her mother, who is no longer able to cope with the abuse inflicted on her by Kya’s father, then by all of her siblings, and eventually by her father, who leaves for a life of drinking and gambling.

Left with nothing but the surrounding environment, Kya has no choice but to fend for herself. She learns to use the natural world as not only a means for survival but as a form of income. She survives  by trading the mussels and fish that she collects for money at a gas station owned by Jumpin’.  A strong and long-lasting friendship develops between Kya and Jumpin’ which was a fitting reminder that friendship can be formed even in the most desolate of situations, as well of the hope which friendship brings to one’s life. As a result of the kindness shown by Jumpin’, Kya is no longer completely alone. I found this particularly uplifting in an otherwise so-far bleak plot.

Whilst the novel shows moments of friendship, you are also met with moments of discrimination. Owens shows how quickly prejudice can spread as on Kya’s first and only day at school, she is mocked and humiliated by her classmates for being unable to read. It is here that she becomes nicknamed the “Marsh Girl”, a label which haunts her for the rest of the novel. I found it incredibly frustrating as a reader to learn that Kya’s entire existence as seen by those living in Barkley Cove is defined by a single day, perhaps even a single encounter. It is an identity over which she has no control.

I thoroughly enjoyed Owens’ portrayal of the beauty and importance of the natural world of the marsh in both Kya’s survival and in her happiness. This reflected my own love of nature and I  found myself able to personally relate to Kya. With no formal education, Kya learns from the world around her. She becomes an expert of the marsh and eventually utilises her knowledge to publish reference books on seashells and seabirds, thus gaining an income. Whilst Kya has very few friends, she finds comfort in the presence of the gulls. Kya has been abandoned by her birth mother, but she finds a new maternal figure in the form of Mother Nature itself. Owens states the important message that if we have nature, we are never truly alone. Through this, I realised the power  nature has to help and heal, even in a time of complete desperation.

The second storyline focuses on the murder investigation of Chase Andrews, Barkley Cove’s star quarterback, in which Kya quickly becomes a suspect. Given the intense discrimination already experienced by Kya by this point in the novel, her almost immediate implication in the crime came as little surprise to me. Regardless, I still found it shocking to see how willing individuals were to treat Kya like a murderer despite the tenuous evidence linking her to the crime.  Owens gives  a small insight into a corrupt justice system by highlighting how innocent people, especially those who are victims of persecution, are immediately assumed to be guilty. It is the court case section of the novel which I found to be the most gripping. By this point I was fully invested in Owens’ protagonist, so I found it nearly impossible to stop reading until I could find out whether or not justice is delivered.

I certainly plan on returning to Where the Crawdads Sing, as I trust it will show me many more important messages. I highly appreciate how Owens’ wonderful writing has encouraged me to look more deeply at the world around me, and so I urge you to read this fantastic novel too so you can experience this for yourself.

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