Swamp: Adobe Stock
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Will the Film Capture the Artfulness of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’?

With its film adaptation releasing this summer, the best-seller Where the Crawdads Sing calls a reader to open themselves to places and people on the edge.

Where the Crawdads Sing
Delia Owens
G.P. Putnam's Sons
August 2018

Seamus Heaney’s poem, “The Death of a Naturalist”, describes a boy repelled by Nature’s grotesque, irascible strength. Delia Owens’ debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, operates in the opposite tenor; in the novel, Nature becomes not only a parent but a lover for the novel’s main characters. Like David Guterson’s Snow on Falling Cedars (1994), Where the Crawdads Sing is a love story nested in a who-done-it—an irresistible formula for millions of readers and Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon is one of the producers releasing the film adaptation in July 2022, just a month shy of the book’s fourth birthday. Those who haven’t read the book still have a chance to encounter the author’s fierce intellect and the sublime in Owen’s fiction debut.

Set in the balmy estuary outside the fictional town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina, the narrative jump-starts when two boys find the dead body of Chase Andrews in the shallows of the swamps. As Chase was the town’s philandering, home-grown hero, foul play is suspected. Though it’s 1969, when a time of tolerance is dawning around the country (e.g., Woodstock), the townsfolk cling to their prejudices and quickly cast accusing eyes at Kya, the Marsh Girl. 

Owens glides us back years earlier to Kya’s harrowing origins of abandonment and abuse. Through prose that’s rich, regional, and precise, Owens sets up a parallel between Kya’s family life and the biological processes of the swamp: 

Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but…the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.

Kya’s family is similarly bent on eating itself alive. One by one, the members of her family are disappearing. Her mother (Ma) flees from their shack without turning back, leaving Kya with her alcoholic father (Pa), the tormenting epicenter of the family’s dysfunction. While aching with questions over when Ma will return, Kya must find out how to survive Pa and the Marsh. 

Luckily for Kya, at least the Marsh turns out to be benevolent. “Maybe it was mean country, but not an inch was lean. Layers of life…were piled on the land or in the water. A man who didn’t mind scrabbling for supper would never starve.”

And learn to scrabble, Kya does. Nature is supple and she is a quick study, recalling every breadcrumb of advice her departed family members left her and supplementing with her own observations. When her daily work of feeding herself and fending Pa off is complete, she finds solace in the flora and fauna of the Marsh. Birds, for instance, become a motif showing Kya’s identification with Nature as her truest begetter and keeper.  

But of course, Nature has a cruel streak. Through times of scarcity and happenstance in river currents, Kya is forced into friendships, often bringing her more pain than the hardships have brought. Perhaps the greatest example of this is found in Tate, the good-hearted son of a shrimper. Despite Kya’s hair-trigger shyness, Tate seeks her out. He opens her to truths inside and outside the Marsh and within herself. It’s a process that ill-prepares her for an inevitable severance. As most of the chapters are named for something that either dies or disappears, Kya has to harden to physical survival in the Marsh and the psychological forces of isolation and sorrow. 

There are passages in Where the Crawdads Sing sure to elicit sobs from the most stone-cold reader as Kya is shredded in the emotional storms stirred up by the goodness and antipathy of others. But the ampleness of Nature and Owens’ language continues to provide levity and nourishment on every page. 

As rich as it is in naturalist detail, the novel’s prose features pleasing intertextuality with poems, nursery rhymes, and song lyrics, not to mention the idiomatic music of the magnolia-mouthed Carolinians. One observer describes Kya as “skinny as a tick on a flagpole”. One of Kya’s siblings leaves her with the truism that “it’s better the skunk ya know than the skunk ya don’t…”

Despite the folksy territory Owens inhabits, she steers clear of sentimentality as if it were a sandbar, always piloting the plot back to Kya’s vulnerability and the at times disturbing ways she finds resiliency. Preternaturally observant with academic proclivities stoked by Tate, Kya, as she matures, plumbs the depths of biology to understand the darker spectrum of behavior. Her studies and observations are rife with instinctual urges toward copulation, abandonment, and mariticide, especially when organisms are under duress. When things become dire for Kya, she must decide what survival strategy to employ and what differences there are, if any, between humans and non-humans.

A reader who has experienced Nature as an indifferent or hostile force may chafe against Owens’ depictions of harmony between Kya and the natural world. However, this extraordinary relationship is established as necessary by Kya’s traumatic backstory; it’s shaped into believability by Owens’ craft so that even the most curmudgeonly urbanite will be wooed. 

The novel’s concluding movement roils in a courtroom drama. Owens ups the tempo with short, punchy chapters. The ending plot twists stem from themes woven into the very weft of the work’s tapestry so that when they unfold, Owens achieves the jaw-dropping shock and awe she’s worked for. The romance and who-done-it arcs resolve together to highlight the work as a love story between the girl and her childhood sweetheart, humanity and nature, the author and language.

Like Kya does by the end, Owens emerges as a fully realized artist and scientist in this work that has been begging to be made into a film four years ago. Let’s hope Hollywood doesn’t let it go to seed.