‘Crawdads’ is as Lovely as its Marshland

For the last year or two, it seems like I’ve been seeing Where The Crawdads Sing EVERYWHERE. On all the best-of and bestseller lists. In the “popular” section of libraries (ah, remember libraries?) and in every airport gift shop (and airports!). Reading the short blurb about it, about a girl growing up on her own in the swamplands, made me think of survival books I’d loved as a kid, like Gary Paulson’s Hatchet and Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, or a more recent read, Karen Russel’s Swamplandia!

Despite loving all those books, I was a little meh about this one. The story behind the book seemed more interesting. The New York Times published a feature about it in December, but here’s the TL;DR: Delia Owens is a retired naturalist who had written this book and after enough rejections to inspire any query-weary author, got a small deal with a small publisher, who printed 28,000 copies—and immediately had to print many, many more as the book struck a chord with readers across ages and political affiliations. What kind of book could outsell Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and John Grisham combined?

This. This book.

Where the Crawdads Sing

Whatever disinterest I had, I was severely misguided. It was like when I was a kid and my mom told me I should read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and I didn’t want to but I did it anyway just to shut her up and then fell in love with it. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say this is love between Crawdads and me but it’s something. The subject matter of a little girl, Kya, being left to fend for herself in the North Carolina swamp is predictably alarming, but Crawdads breaks her unusual coming-of-age tale up with a murder mystery of who killed the town’s once-star quarterback. The mystery itself doesn’t care as much about being a whodunnit (almost from the outset, you know they’re looking at the grown-up version of this resourceful little girl) as it does being a howdunnit and a whydunnit, or maybe a but-did-she-really-dunnit.

It’s a brilliant move, narratively speaking, because combining the survival/coming-of-age and mystery stories makes a reader implicitly search for the connections between both of them. At the first appearance of (minor spoiler) the murder victim in the girl’s life, you look at their interactions and wonder not how (definitely not how or why) but when it all went wrong. As other characters weave themselves in and out of both timelines, you wonder if they could be at fault instead. And the question of whether it was just a bizarre accident is never far from your mind–a question that maddeningly doesn’t get answered until years after Kya’s eventual trial.

Given this race for information between the two timelines, on one level this is a book that prompts you to read faster. But doing so means you don’t get to linger on Owens’ poetic prose. Early on, she describes part of the scenery as, “The town wharf, draped in frayed ropes and old pelicans, jutted into the small bay, whose water, when calm, reflected the reds and yellows of shrimp boats.” Throughout the book, she melds lush lines like that with straightforward action, giving the impression on a sentence level as in the plot of a place where life is hard and one has to be sensible despite living in what amounts to a natural wonderland. It’s nothing short of lovely. 

Within Crawdads, you as the reader get to see a richer and more dynamic version of the main character than most of the people who surround her, and her full impact on her world is not felt for decades or even beyond her death. Before that, most people viewed her with distrust, referring to her simply as Marsh Girl and thinking of her as a wild creature instead of the thoughtful naturalist she was. In a way, I feel I experienced something similar while reading the book. I lacked real interest in Where the Crawdads Sing until I opened it up and gave it a chance. And when I did, I found it rich and rewarding—and magical.

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