Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens, author, Cassandra Campbell, narrator
The book takes place in North Carolina, and it covers the life of Katherine Danielle Clark, born on October 10, 1945, from her childhood to her death. The story is told tenderly, over more than five decades, through the memories of Kya, as she is called, and it is read expertly by the narrator, who interprets the different characters with perfect pitch.
The book begins in 1969, with a mystery. A body is discovered in the swamp. It is the body of the local hero, the upper class, Chase Andrews. Was his death an accident or was it murder? An investigation is begun. The novel then goes to 1952, and continues to switch back and forth from the past to the present as Kya grows up and tells her story, until she and the murder exist in the same place and time, in 1969, the year the body is found.
So we meet Kya, almost 7, in 1952 as she watches her mom walk down the road, never to return. Soon after, most of her siblings are driven away also, by their father’s brutality; he is a violent drunk. One sibling, Jody, was the last to leave her, and she always remembered him and the advice he had often given. When her father left, too, and never returned, seven year old Kya was completely on her own. She did not let anyone know that her family was gone because she was afraid of going into foster care. With the limited knowledge she had gleaned from watching her mother, she taught herself to cook. She took her father’s boat and shopped in town by bartering with Jumpin’, the man who ran the store where they had bought supplies. She brought him things, like mussels and smoked fish, and he gave her grits and gasoline in exchange. His wife Mabel taught her how to garden and she grew her own vegetables. Jumpin’ became like a parent, always watching out for her well being, warning her of danger. Jumpin’ lived in Colored Town with Mabel who took it upon herself to gather hand-me-downs for Kya, from their community. The people were happy to give her the things they no longer needed, unlike the whites in town who shunned her.
After the truant officer took her to school, one day, promising her a good hot meal, she vowed never to return because the children bullied her. So she never had an education. One day, while she was out in the boat, exploring, she got lost. An old friend of her brother’s, Tate, saw her all alone, and he guided her home. They became friends, although he was older than she. When he discovered she was illiterate, he taught her to read and do simple arithmetic. Her world opened up. He brought her books and encouraged her to study them. She soon educated herself. She loved the natural sciences and read every book she could get her hands on. Soon she was cataloguing the things she discovered in nature, using her own artistic and writing skills. She grew to trust and love Tate, but when he too was gone, she lost her faith in people.
As time went by, she developed into a young woman and she caught the eye of Chase Andrews, a local boy who was handsome and rich. At first, because she had been abandoned by everyone else, she avoided him, but he made promises to her, even though he knew he couldn’t keep them, because their worlds were too different. She was naïve, and soon, she was persuaded to trust him. When he betrayed her too, she withdrew into her own world even further. She was a simple soul who only wanted to love and be loved, but she kept failing to achieve that.
Kya’s life story is heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once. She spent her life running and hiding, protecting herself from the outside world. They did not understand her or want her in their midst and she feared them. The marsh became her mother, her world, when she had no place else to turn and felt completely alone and lonely. Through her scientific studies, she learned about the dominance of hierarchies in the natural world and she translated it into her knowledge of man. She observed behavior and the need that dominance inspired, and she witnessed inequality in the natural world and actually experienced it in her own.
The novel has something for everyone. It is very intense as injustice, arrogance, class warfare and racism raise their heads. It is a love story, a mystery filled with intrigue, and a legal drama with nail-biting court scenes. Each of the themes in the book is handled perfectly and culminates in satisfying conclusions. Toward the end, the tension builds on every page as Kya, accused of murdering her former boyfriend, awaits the verdict. The ending has unexpected twists and turns. While at times the story line stretches credulity, as we watch Kya come of age, it also begins to seem quite possible that someone so bright could accomplish all she did. We want to believe in her.