Go jumpin’ in this book, gonna get yo’ boots muddy. Ain’t no warming up. Git your ear in. Ma’s gone wearin’ her gator shoes. It’s a sho’-nuff mess.
In Where the Crawdad Sings, Owens transports you with a splash straight into the marsh on the Carolina coast where nature rules and life is determined by instinct and genetics. If you observe the marsh closely, the patterns of the fireflies and rituals of the preying mantis, we’re not so different to the critters.
Kya’s story begins in the 1950s. She’s six years old and the last child in a family hopelessly swamped by the American depression, literally. Both father and mother have lost everything, ending up in the marsh where they fall apart, her Pa to drink and violence, her mother to her own depression which has her walking away from her children. The older children leave, one by one, and Kya doesn’t remember their names or faces. Her brother is the last to walk out and Kya’s childhood becomes one of survival, barefoot in too-short bib overalls, eeking out a lonely existence with her mostly absent Pa, befriending the gulls and the marsh life. Eventually, Pa goes drinking and doesn’t return.
The marsh becomes Kya’s life source, her education and her comfort. She evades the authorities who would send her to school but studies the natural science all around her, collects mussels for a coloured man called Jumpin’ who sells gas for her boat (this is still a very segregated South), and suffers extreme loneliness. On her occasional forays into town to buy essentials she is ostracised, the dirty marsh girl. Segregation applies to white trash, too.
There’s a boy called Tate, a friend of her brother’s. It feels like he tames her. This is not a word used in the book but his patient winning of trust over the years feels like she is a wild animal who slowly draws near, allowing a nervous contact. Tate discovers at the age of twelve, despite a quick enough mind for all things marsh related, Kya has never learnt to read. Their education goes both ways. Tate goes off to university to study marsh life, promising to come back for her. Kya’s life is framed by the people who leave her.
There’s another boy, later. He’s the town’s star jock called Chase, which becomes an appropriate name.
Kya studies, paints, writes and collects specimens. She watches the wildlife and learns about males and females, their courting customs, where the power lies, how to deal with unwanted attention.
Interleaved with Kya’s upbringing and coming of age in the marsh is a story set in the nearby town, where two boys come across a body. “It coulda been that woman lives out in the marsh. Crazy ’nough for the loony bin. I jus’ bet she’d be up to this kinda thing . . .” The story becomes one of prejudice and assumptions and there are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird in the courtroom drama.
Delia Owens is a zoologist and a writer of wildlife science and her observations of nature are exquisite: dreamy and romantic but meticulous. She’ll describe a late sun the colour of butter and the mating strategy of a randy bullfrog with equal care. You can well believe she has observed both.
Then she flickered a different signal, and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings. Kya watched others. The females got what they wanted—first a mate, then a meal—just by changing their signals. Kya knew judgment had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same color in different light.