The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
The Prologue opens with the discovery of the body of Chase Andrews in a swamp in 1969.
In Part I, Kya Clark grows up with her abusive father in a shack in the swampy outskirts of town in the 1950's (her mother and siblings all leave due because of Pa's abuse). Kya meets Tate, a boy from town that befriends her. When Kya is 10, Pa disappears (a couple nearby, Jumpin' and Mabel, help Kya to survive). As she grows up, Kya develops a keen knowledge of the outdoors. Kya and Tate reconnect, he teaches her to read, and it grows into a romance. When Tate leaves for college, he promises to come back, but later Tate worries that Kya (wild and unkempt) can't fit into his world. He doesn't return, and Kya gives up on him.
(Flash forward) Many years later, the body of Chase Andrews, the town hotshot and ladies' man, is found in the swamp at the bottom of the fire tower. An investigation starts up.
In Part II, Kya is now 19. Chase Andrews has been pursuing Kya aggressively, and she finally gives in to his advances. One day, Chase takes her to the fire tower, and she gives him a shell necklace as a gift. He promises to marry her, but Kya soon discovers that Chase is actually engaged to someone else. She dumps him. Meanwhile, Tate comes back and apologizes for what happened. He also wants to help Kya turn her nature diagrams into a book. Eventually, Kya's book is published in 1968.
In 1969, Kya is identified as a suspect in the Chase Andrews murder. Notably, Chase's shell necklace that he always wore was not found on his body. Eventually, Kya is arrested for Chase's death. The trial proceeds (reviewing evidence such as the missing necklace, fibers found on Chase's body, Kya's whereabouts, plus Chase had attacked Kya after being rebuffed two months before his death). But Kya is found not guilty, and she and Tate profess their love for each other.
Time passes, and Kya and Tate turn her shack into a nice cottage and remain there. Kya passes away at 64. Tate goes through her things and discovers evidence (in the form of a poem Kya wrote under a pseudonym and notably Chase's shell necklace) that Kya killed Chase. The book ends with Tate destroying the poems and tossing the necklace into the ocean.
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Two boys from the village go out riding bikes near the old fire tower. They discover the body of Chase Andrew in the swamp.
Kya (Catherine Danielle Clark) is illiterate, barefoot, wild and unkempt. Her family lives in a small shack out in the marshes. Pa is a veteran, but he’s abusive. When Kya is 6, her mom packs a blue suitcase and leaves.
Kya is the youngest of 5. Jodie is seven years older, but closest to her in age. Her two older sisters and the oldest brother (Missy, Murph, and Mandy) leave not long after their mom leaves. Jodie stays while, but eventually tells her he can’t stay. He leaves her alone with Pa.
Kya attends school for one day, but the kids laugh at her so she never goes back. Ma was a painter and Pa’s family had money before the Great Depression, but Ma’s gone and those days are long over.
Kyra takes the boat out one day and gets lost in the lagoon. A boy from town, Tate Walker, helps her out. Tate used to be Jodie’s friend and is about four years older than Kya. Kya asks to go fishing with Pa, hoping to see the boy again. They have a good time fishing for a while, but one day a letter from Ma arrives. When Pa sees it, he burns it and they never go fishing again.
Benji and Steve, 10, find the body of Chase Andrews at the bottom of an abandoned fire tower in the marshes. (He either fell off or was pushed off the tower.)
The sheriff begins collecting evidence. There’s no tracks or fingerprints, but there are traces of red wool fibers. Chase was handsome, a former star quarterback and had been working at his parent’s store, Western Auto. He was also married, but still a bit of a ladies man.
When Kya is 10, Pa goes off one day and doesn’t come back. She needs to pretend he’s still around, or she’ll get taken away. For money, she collects mussels to sell to a guy called Jumpin’ the bait shop. She tries to fish as well, but the fish she catches are no good.
Jumpin’ realizes she needs help, so his wife Mabel collects donations at the church and trades her fish for them. Mabel also teaches her how to garden and gives her some seeds.
Rumors start about the Marsh Girl and kids come by to bang on her door as a prank from time to time. Kya gets good at hiding away. Kya also likes to collect things she finds in the marshes. One day a boy leaves a heron feather on a tree stump. Kya and the boy are soon trading feathers and he responds with some stuff she really needs — seeds and a spark plug, and she finds out the boy is Tate.
Tate offers to teach her to read. They meet regularly as he teaches her to read and other subjects. When social services start inquiring for her, they decide to meet somewhere more secluded, “where the crawdads sing” (“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters”).
Kya is growing up to be very pretty, and Tate also associates her with his younger sister who died in a car accident along with his mother. Tate tells her about them, and that they were in the car to buy a bike that he wanted for his birthday. They kiss.
They continue seeing each other romantically until Tate leaves for college at Chapel Hill. He tells her he’ll come back for her in a month. He doesn’t show. She finally gives up on him, heartbroken.
Kya is now 19. Tate did come back but realized Kya did not fit in with his world and was too cowardly to say goodbye. (Kya is still running around the marshes and hiding in the bushes, whereas Tate has been off studying at a respected university.) Chase Andrews develops an interest in Kya. They go on a picnic date, but he is too sexually aggressive and she runs off, literally.
Chase continues to pursue Kya. He takes her to the fire tower. Kya gives him a shell necklace. Tate finishes his studies and decides he wants to be with Kya, but sees that she is with Chase.
Chase’s mother, Patti, tells the police he wears his shell necklace every day, but the coroner says it was not on the body. Patti tells him Kya gave it to him. Another man mentions seeing Kya in the bay the night Chase died. Tate says she was out of town meeting with publishers. The police get a search warrant for her house and find a red wool hat.
Chase tells Kya he wants to marry her, but keeps her secluded from the rest of the town. Tate goes to see Kya finally to apologize. He sees her nature diagrams and offers to help her find a publisher. He tells her Chase is chasing other women in town. Kya sees Chase with his arm around another woman and discovers he is engaged.
Kya’s first book is published. Kya goes to pay back taxes on her land so she owns the deed free and clear.
Jodie shows up and Kya recognizes him from the scar across his face (complements of Pa). He ended up joining the Army and they paid for his education. He came back when he saw her name on her book. He tells her Ma died two years ago. He also brings painting Ma did of all of them. There’s one of Tate who used to hang around and told her about nature when she was a toddler, until Pa told him not to come back.
A man goes to the Sheriff with some information on Kya and she is arrested. We find out that Chase tried to force himself on Kya a month prior to his death. Kya sits in jail for two months before the trial starts. She has a good lawyer. Her publisher testifies that they had dinner that night. Chase’s mom testifies about the missing necklace. Tate visits her in jail. Finally, she is found not guilty, but the whole ordeal has made her distrust the town even more. Jodie comes to see her and she tells him to leave.
Tate goes to see her afterward, but the Sheriff stops him to tell him that his father has passed. Seeing him stopped, Kya realizes she has loved him all along. When he returns after the funeral, Kya acknowledges that she loves him. They start a life together and turn the shack into a nice cottage.
Jumpin passes away. Jodie gets married and has kids that he brings by. The village grows into a city, but Tate and Kya never visit either way. Kya passes away at 64. Tate has “The Marsh Girl” inscribed on her headstone.
As Tate goes to look through her possessions he finds a hidden compartment with poems by a local author (these are referenced throughout the book). He realizes the poet was Kya, writing under a nom de plume all these years. There is one poem about murdering Chase, and with it is Chase’s missing shell necklace, tying her to his murder. (In short: yes, Kya murdered Chase.)
Tate burns all the poems and drops Chase’s shell back into the water. The end!
Still have questions? For more explanations and answers, see Questions and Answers about Where the Crawdads Sing.