Pandemic Book Recommendation #18: Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, is the perfect pandemic read – especially if you have been feeling lonely and isolated. It is the story of Kya Clark, who begins the book as six-year-old marsh trash along the racially charged North Carolina Coast. Her story is heart-wrenching, but her spirit of resiliency will make your efforts to get through quarantine feel like a walk in the park. This is a novel inspired by nature, as the marsh becomes Kya’s teacher and she ascends to a role as its most exceptional student and defender. It is the coming of age story of a girl you will come to love and admire, even as you suspect her of murder in the first degree. This a murder mystery after all, and the setting moves back and forth in time between 1952 when Kya’s tragic story begins unfolding and 1969, when Barkley Cove’s star quarterback was possibly killed late at night in a swamp tower.
There are three reasons I loved this book. First, Delia Owens has captured the spirit of Aldo Leopold in a setting I know and love. The North Carolina beach was our summer vacation refuge when we lived in West Virginia, only the landscape I knew was developed to the point that Kya would find unrecognizable. The deep complexity and connections between species were mostly forgotten, protected turtles being one of the few remaining vestiges of a once ecologically rich landscape. Owens cites Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac as the primary inspiration for her book, and his fingerprints are on almost every page. When a young man – a Marine Biologist in training – begins teaching Kya to read, he starts her with the first sentence of A Sand County Almanac: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” Kya’s reaction: “I did not know a sentence could be so full.” Kya takes Leopold’s vision to heart and lives it out in the novel. “Aldo Leopold taught her that floodplains are living extensions of the rivers, which will claim them back any time they choose. Anyone living on a floodplain is just waiting in the river’s wings.” She had no patience for those who sought to drain the “wasteland” of the swamp. “Large machines cutting oaks. Diggin channels to dry the marsh. Leaving tracks of thirst. They had not read Aldo Leopold.” The nature imagery throughout the volume is a welcome respite amid social distancing measures. A Northern Flicker feather even makes an appearance – our favourite bird at our backyard feeder here in Edmonton.
Second, this is a book about loneliness, and 2020 has been the loneliest year of my highly extroverted life. Kya’s reflections of her years of near-total isolation spoke to me in ways I was not expecting. Owens describes how loneliness became, for Kya, a natural appendage. Her life is one defined by rejections, and the lonely becomes more than she can hold as she seeks to protect herself in the marsh. “The rarest of shells, splendid sunsets, could not stop it.” She cries, “I have to do life alone. But I knew this. I’ve known a long time that people don’t stay.” She laments, “Please don’t talk to me about isolation. No one has to tell me how it changes a person. I have lived it. I am isolation.” Strong words in this age of pandemic. Kya can be our teacher and guide, only her isolation may or may not have led to a murder scene – so choose your lessons wisely.
The third thing I loved about this book was the poetry. I’m not usually a big fan, and honestly, I can’t distinguish between good and bad poems. But the timing of some of the passages was profound during my reading of the book. I listened to it on Audible during long walks in the evening, and one night, as I was along the North Saskatchewan River at sunset, I put the following poem on repeat:
“Sunsets are never simple.
Twilight is refracted and reflected,
but never true.
Even tide is a disguise,
covering tracks, covering lies.
We don’t care that dusk deceives.
We see brilliant colors,
and never learn that the sun
has dropped beneath the Earth,
by the time we see the burn.”
Where the Crawdads Sing is a story of loss, love, loneliness, discrimination, survival, connection, and murder. It captures the complexity of natural ecosystems and uses it as a lens to dissect human culture. We may be the dominant species on our planet, but we are mammals – and sometimes we act like them. “We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were. What we had to be to survive way back yonder.”