WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING
by Delia Ownes
There is an aura of menace from the start in this story’s atmospheric location. Reaching for the dictionary, we discover the meaning of the word crawdad:a colloquial term for the elusive crayfish. Set in the coastal marsh land of North Carolina, it is the début novel of a wildlife scientist who vividly describes the desolate landscape of lagoons and swamp inhabited by people who ‘live on the edge’. The child of one such family, Kya, is the focus of the book and the reader is driven to know what her fate will be, at the same time appreciating the finely drawn characters from this backwoods’ region.
Kya’s life is one of abandonment and perpetual search for a sense of belonging. When she is six years old, her mother walks away from her abusive father, leaving the child and her siblings in the marsh shack she calls home. Gradually, the older children disappear too, including her adored brother, Jodie. Kya has never been to school and a zealous truancy officer coaxes her to attend. She only stays for one day, being ridiculed by her peers for her unkempt appearance and inability to read. She is almost feral, perceived as coming from a dysfunctional family of white trash, and soon earns the soubriquet, ‘The Marsh Girl.’
Before he deserts her too, her father has remorseful moments when he teaches her navigational skills in his small boat and how to live out on the marsh and fend for herself. Alone, she shows astonishing stoicism, fishing for mussels that she sells to the black proprietor of a shop across the bay where she buys fuel and provisions. There is an affinity between the two, who both know prejudice: he for his colour (this is the 1960s) and she for her nonconformity.
Kya communes with nature, understanding the ways of the marsh and swamp, intensely interested in its flora and fauna, collecting feathers and shells. A boy called Tate befriends her and, stretching credulity, teaches her to read. She begins to make nature notes to accompany her collections and also paints her specimens. She trusts he will never abandon her but, inevitably, a university education entices him away and she is once again bereft. After some years he returns to encourage her to submit her manuscripts and drawings to a publisher.
Another admirer, Chase Andrews, a spoiled and arrogant quarterback, besotted by Kya’s wild beauty, sets out to seduce her. After she has given herself to him in a sleazy motel room, he abandons her to marry a local girl. It is then the story takes a different turn when Chase is found dead, presumed murdered. Their former relationship revealed, Kya is charged but acquitted.
Reunited with Tate, now a successful research biologist, she at last finds solace in his love. Part of a shared landscape, they enjoy remembered pleasures. Tate has always known where the crawdads sing -‘far in the bush where the critters are wild,’ a synonym for his beautiful Marsh Girl with an undisclosed secret.
Review by Jan Pain, Sherborne Literary Society