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‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ pits natural beauty vs. human ugliness in a Carolina marsh

The title of Delia Owens’ debut novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” refers to a place “far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.” Indeed, the untamed North Carolina marshland setting is not merely a backdrop for the remarkable story that unfolds, but it shares center stage with the unforgettable protagonist, Kya.

Kya grows up in a rundown shack deep in the marsh, a lawless and unforgiving “wasteland bog” where no one except outcasts would want to live. As a 6-year-old in 1952, she watches her mom abandon her abusive drunk of a husband, as well as her five children. One by one, Kya’s siblings leave, too. Her father is the last to go when she is 10. Her abandonment is complete. “Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.” She learns to get by digging for mussels at low tide and selling them to Jumpin’, a friendly man who runs a bait and gas shop and lives in “Colored Town.”

The tale is told in chapters that bounce around in time over the years, providing glimpses decades into the future and back again. We learn early on that in 1969, the body of Chase Andrews — Barkley Cove’s star high school quarterback turned town playboy — is found at the bottom of a fire tower. That knowledge looms over the story as it unfolds.

Mostly, Kya stays away from people. She goes to school just once, lured by a truant officer telling of a free hot lunch. But she never returns after the other kids call her “marsh hen” and “swamp rat.” Instead, Kya spends her days amassing a collection of feathers, shells, bones and nests from the marsh. Unable to write or spell, she categorizes and labels them with detailed watercolor renderings. One day a local boy named Tate spots her gathering specimens while he is fishing. Intrigued, he sets out to get her attention by leaving her rare bird feathers on a tree stump. He succeed and offers to teach her how to read.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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With Tate’s tutoring in academics and etiquette, Kya begins to thrive. The pair fall for each other over a shared love of nature, a subject skillfully brought to life by the author. Delia Owens is a Georgia native turned Idahoan who has coauthored three nonfiction books about African wildlife, and her knowledge of the animal kingdom enhances the novel. Owens blends artful prose with educational anecdotes, so the reader is all but guaranteed to learn something about the evolution of male peacocks, the inner workings of fireflies, what makes stars twinkle, and so on. She even manages to work a brief biology lesson into a police search of Kya’s home when a small-town cop reviewing her collection asks another officer, “Did ya know that female birds only got one ovary?”

Kya’s ecological curiosity has an underlying personal agenda: “Within all the worlds of biology, she searched for an explanation of why a mother would leave her offspring.” When Tate goes away to college to study biology and never returns, Kya is abandoned and shattered once again. She attributes his abandonment to her lack of social graces. “She couldn’t imagine college women, but whatever form they took would be better than a tangled-haired, barefoot mussel-monger who lived in a shack.”

Known in town as the “Marsh Girl,” Kya gains legendary status in her community. People stare and gossip on the rare occasions she ventures into town, and as a badge of honor, boys tag her shack and run away as if it were a haunted house. Taking that defiant risk-taking to the next level, Chase Andrews makes a move “to snag her, to be the first.” But he becomes entranced, viewing her as “gorgeous, free, wild as a dang gale.” For a time, they’re an item. Then Chase winds up dead. Despite having a solid alibi, Kya, now in her early 20s, is put on trial for his murder.

When Tate materializes and tries to earn back her trust, Kya is understandably cautious. But he soldiers on, helping get her watercolors published and leading to her first substantial income. When she stands trial, he joins her small band of supporters, which includes Jumpin’, his wife, Tate’s father, her publisher and a long-lost brother who returns after years away.

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The quintessential talk-of-the-town trial comes down to more than the simple question of whether or not Kya is responsible for Chad’s death. It’s also about whether the townspeople can redeem themselves after luridly ostracizing Kya. Says the defense attorney during closing arguments: “Some people whispered that she was part wolf or the missing link between ape and man. That her eyes glowed in the dark. Yet in reality, she was only an abandoned child, a little girl surviving on her own in a swamp, hungry and cold, but we didn’t help her.” While suspicions about Chase’s murder grow, the mystery of whodunit remains until the last few pages, an ending that comes well before the reader is ready for it. If the novel’s title is a promise of instilling a sense of wild, free-spirited adventure in the reader’s mind, Owens certainly delivers.

The beautifully executed tale offers a reminder that despite all of society’s material trappings, humans ultimately mimic the survivalist and carnal behavior of animals. Owens paints such a vivid picture of life on the periphery of civilization’s reach that the reader will undoubtedly gain a newfound appreciation for the marsh, an environment “where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky.”

FICTION

‘Where the Crawdads Sings’

By Delia Owens

G. P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Random House

384 pages, $26

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