1952, 1960s, 1969, biology, book review, class prejudice, coming-of-age narrative, Delia Owens, evolution, historical fiction, inconsistent voice, injustice, Jim Crow, marshes, murder investigation, narrative tropes, South Carolina, wildlife
Review: Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Putnam, 2018. 368 pp. $28
Six-year-old Kya doesn’t know her real name is Catherine, nor has she ever been to school. All she knows is the South Carolina marsh where she lives with several siblings, a drunken, violent father, and a much put-upon mother. But in summer 1952, Ma walks out, after which Kya’s brothers and sisters follow. Little Kya has to raise herself, essentially, because her father’s often absent on a bender, which can be a blessing. Her only friends are wild creatures, whose habits she comes to know intimately; her greatest, sole pleasure.
You see the wild creatures she loves, rendered with insight and deep feeling:
A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like the mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes her to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time, like a predacious bridesmaid. And yet, on rare occasions she hunts on the wing, darting and diving sharply, swordlike beak in the lead.
Kya herself might answer to this description, especially that of the “patient, solitary hunter.” The vivid portrait of nature in a place nobody else wants, whose human inhabitants the inlanders consider trash, provides a superb background. And the tale of how this girl grows up by her own wits (and kindness of strangers), terrified of just about everybody and everything except the marsh, makes remarkable reading.
However, Where the Crawdads Sing doesn’t settle for the unusual coming-of-age story, and therein rests its greatest shortcoming. Jumping ahead to 1969, as many of these short chapters do, there’s a mystery as well. A former high school quarterback, the town Lothario, is found dead in the marsh. You guess right away that the police, utterly incompetent and desperate to find a murderer (they refuse to accept that such a demigod could have died accidentally), will home in on the Marsh Girl, what the locals call her. She’s reputed savage, lustful, and depraved, the townsfolk’s way saying that she’s different from them, therefore expendable.
Granted, the southern-justice narrative provides an instantly recognizable means to raise the stakes. But Owens introduces the death in a prologue and keeps the police procedure front and center, as if the mind-boggling story of a little girl in a marsh weren’t enough. As years pass, there’s also a tender romance with a young man who accepts Kya as she is. I’d have thought all that sufficient and quite lovely, so I ask why we need the mystery. I will say that the murder investigation allows Owens to expound, sometimes cogently, on mating habits and the genetics of survival, linking her protagonist’s story to evolution, a clever conceit.
But much of the novel feels contrived. I never sense that Kya, who undergoes great hardship and takes brutal, yet often predictable, knocks, is ever really in danger. Terrible things happen, but just as the marsh protects her from outsiders who don’t know its waterways or approaches, the narrative cocoons her, in a way.
Start with how a child grows to her twenties in perfect health, without ever having seen a doctor or dentist. But if that sounds like nitpicking, consider the split time frame, which puts you in 1969 right away, undermining the tensions of 1952 and the immediate years afterward. Also, the kind strangers often appear at just the right moment, sometimes bearing a bounty too good to be true. After a while, I get the idea that whatever trouble comes her way, luck will favor her.
Further, Kya’s voice goes all over the map, which jars me and pulls me out of the story. Owens seems eager to get to the age where Kya speaks and thinks like an autodidact biologist offering thoughtful commentary about evolution (itself a stretch), rather than stay with the bewildered, frightened child who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from, or how to prepare it. Since I want to hear the child and don’t always believe the self-trained scientist, the struggle between the voices is very distracting, especially when one intrudes on the other. The paragraph quoted above, about the heron, supplies an example; Kya wouldn’t know what “concentric circles” means, let alone “bridesmaid” or “lock-and-load.” So who’s watching the heron?
Finally, the year 1969 witnessed turmoil and great events, but I don’t recognize them here, or little about the Sixties, for that matter. The Vietnam War barely makes an appearance, and though Jim Crow seeps around the edges, it’s as if Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement had gone unheard of in South Carolina. Moon landing? Nary a mention, even among the inlanders.
Despite a terrific premise and beautiful prose, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that would have appealed to me more had the author crammed less in it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.