Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens opens with a picture of a map and the discovery of a dead body in the marshes of North Carolina.
Reese’s Book Club September 2018 Pick
I was immediately intrigued when I saw it in the bookstore, but grew wary when I found out it was a celebrity book club pick.
I love Reese Witherspoon’s movies — I even bought a signed copy of her book Whiskey in a Teacup! But I wasn’t a fan of the other book I’d read based on her recommendation.
In general, I’ve had pretty uneven experiences with celebrity book recommendations which has made me question the hype around those books.
Ultimately, though, my curiosity won out as it hung in the bestseller lists month after month, and I’m very glad it did. I ended up picking this up from my local bookstore a few weeks ago, and hunkered down in the Starbucks across the street from me with a Juniper Latte in hand.
For the Detailed Plot Summary, scroll all the way down.
Kya is known in her town as the “Marsh Girl.” She grows up in a shack out in the marshes bordering a small village on the coast of North Carolina. Her mother and her four older siblings all leave to get away from their abusive father, leaving her behind to fend for herself. Eventually, her father disappears as well.
Where the Crawdads Sing is part bildungsroman and part crime drama, centered around Kya, a wild and unkempt girl. The book follows the ups and downs of her life. She lives a lonely life, but her story is a hopeful one as well. With a little help, she’s able to survive and even learn to read.
Despite her status as an outcast, her natural beauty catches the eye of two men in town. However, when the body of Chase Andrews, the local hotshot, is discovered in the marshes, she quickly becomes a prime suspect. The fragile life she has struggled and fought so hard to build is at risk.
Where the Crawdads Sing is about resiliency and survival, but also alienation. I loved the part about Kya’s childhood; it made for a unique story line as Kya learns to navigate the world on her own. The story focuses thematically a lot on her status as an outcast and sense of abandonment, as she is forced to fend for herself. In terms of pacing, it is eventful and mostly fast-moving.
Kya’s story has elements of romance, mystery and even a courtroom thriller interlude. Nature enthusiasts will also enjoy this book, as Kya’s love of the nature around her is conveyed through detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna, a reflection of the author’s background as a former wildlife scientist.
The compelling imagery is descriptive in the right places and sparse when it serves the story better instead. The book has a strong sense of place, transporting you to a different life where you can smell the salty air and sink your feet into the muddy grounds outside the seaside village.
As she heads into her teenage years, the romantic storylines start kicking in, and the melodrama starts ramping up as well. My enthusiasm waned a little bit at this point. The book is increasingly divorced from reality (the idea that a teenage boy would teach her not only to read but about her period seemed far-fetched, and it goes on from there) and plot events get a bit contrived.
Additionally, Kya’s internal journey, her mentally processing the events of her life, felt a little surface level. She struggles with being abandoned by her mother, and the book brings in interesting parallels to nature, but beyond that, events simply happen without much reflection. It felt like there were a number of missed opportunity for it to be a more insightful book.
For whatever criticisms I had while reading, the story easily won me over. As it approaches the date of the crime and the investigation ramps up, I was engrossed. Kya’s story is interspersed with flash-forwards detailing the progress of the Chase Andrews investigation.
I found this worked well, adding an element of mystery to the story as it’s not clear how it will play out for Kya or what exactly happened that night. Moreover, the pacing of the investigation was good, making for pleasurable and suspenseful reading.
Read it or Skip It?
I read this book quickly and found myself delighted by it by the end. The book is more melodrama than a serious literary novel, but is such an engaging story that it’s easy to accept. It’s part romance, mystery, courtroom drama and ode to nature, all of which make for an appealing tale about the town outcast.
The setting is a distinctive “slice-of-life” that’s commonplace, yet not often portrayed clearly in books or movies. It is vividly drawn in a way that infuses the story with energy, a credit to Owen’s genuine love and respect for nature.
Where the Crawdads Sing has been very popular among book clubs, and deservedly so. It’s eventful and accessible, but thoughtfully written, all of which make it a good choice for readers of varying tastes. It also looks like Reese Witherspoon’s production company is going to be turning it into a movie, so that’s something to look forward to as well!
Have you read this or do you think you’d read this? If you read it in a club setting, what did your club think? See it on Amazon or Book Depository.
Extras: Detailed Plot Summary (Spoilers)
Two boys discover the body of Chase Andrews in the marsh.
Kya (Catherine Danielle Clark) attends school for one day, but the kids laugh at her so she never goes back. She is illiterate, barefoot, wild and unkempt. Ma was a painter and Pa's family had money before the Great Depression, but those days are over.
Kyra takes the boat out one day and gets lost in the lagoon. A boy from town, Tate Walker, helps her out. Tate is Jordie's age, 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. 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. 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 reference 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.
Tate burns all the poems and drops Chase's shell back into the water.
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