Where the Crawdads Sing was last year’s biggest novel, a Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine book club pick, an all-time Amazon bestseller, and slated to become a feature-length film. Putting aside the hype, is Where the Crawdads Sing worth a six-month wait to borrow from the library?
The Author: Delia Owens
The Rating: 4/5
Year Read: 2019
Bookish Reading Challenge, 2019: #3. A book you’re embarrassed you haven’t read yet
The hype machine works overtime
If you were a reader in 2018, you couldn’t escape the hype around Where the Crawdads Sing, the first novel from naturalist non-fiction author Delia Owens.
Like everyone else, I saw the book advertised and recommended by various reviewers. And like everyone else, I read the book blurb. But unlike everyone else, I declined to read it. It just doesn’t sound like a book I would enjoy, I thought.
Earlier this year, a colleague whose taste in books I greatly respect enthusiastically recommended Where the Crawdads Sing. Somewhat half-heartedly, I waitlisted it on Overdrive. It would be a six-month wait. No big deal, I thought; it just doesn’t sound like a book I would enjoy.
How wrong I was.
Faces change with life’s toll, but eyes remain a window to what was, and she could see him there.
Survival at the edge of civilization
Where the Crawdads Sing opens with a scene that immediately and viscerally grabbed me by the heart: a mother abandoning her children.
Told from the point of view of six-year-old Kya, this moment would forever change the trajectory of her life growing up in the late 1960s. Her mother’s abandonment sets in motion a chain of events that would force her to grow up well beyond her years. With no family but the flora and fauna of her beloved marsh, Kya became “Marsh Girl” to locals in the nearby town: part fable, part charity case, part loathsome creature.
As Kya gets older, she experiences a natural longing for human connection which leads her to develop relationships with two very different young men. The fallout from these relationships shapes the rest of Kya’s narrative in profound ways.
Turning to nature when nurture fails
In the absence of human love and caring, Kya turns to the nature surrounding her—water, sand, birds, bugs—for connection and comfort.
The book’s title, Where the Crawdads Sing, refers to the allegorical “farthest place in the swamp,” contextualizing the central idea of the book: What’s left when the trappings of polite human society and the learned obligation of family ties are stripped away? What remains is nature at its most essential: adapting, rebounding, surviving, and finally, thriving.
Kya’s evolution follows this essential pattern. Left alone in her cabin by the marsh, Kya has to adapt to her new normal. She doesn’t wallow in grief at the life she lost but rather puts her mind to the mundane tasks of making food, securing food. Over time, she stays safe by reading signs in nature and trusting a few good people. And then, once she learns to read, she finds her destiny in helping others discover the beauty in the swamp they’ve overlooked.
It should also be noted that Kya’s scenes with nature are some of the most beautiful passages in the book. The author’s attunement to nature and reverence for living creatures comes through in her prose and, as a reader, it’s a joy to consume.
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 compared to the marsh, 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.
Nature. Resilience. Hope.
The first few sentences of the book so eloquently described the beauty of a swamp—often considered something murky, dirty, and ugly—that I was immediately hooked. I love an artful, well-written scene, and Delia Owens excels in the craft.
One of my favorite scenes of Kya in nature depicts her lying in the sand, with the tide gently rolling in and out. Kya finds herself responding to the ebb and flow as if it were a hug, her body unconsciously rolling deeper and deeper into the water’s embrace.
The scene both stimulates the senses and evokes the sensations of nature. The moment also perfectly captures Kya’s longing for touch and nature’s response.
It’s just superb writing.
Kya’s resilience also kept me enthralled. It was inspiring to see a female character grow from struggle, seeking and finally defining her own place in the world.
Ultimately, the hopefulness of the book—a pure, clear-headed, matter-of-fact kind of optimism—kept me reading.
I confess, I almost quit the book after the first scene, with the situation of a mother leaving a small child so overwhelmingly sad that it was almost painful to read. However, I’m glad I kept going. While sadness and disappointment marked Kya’s history, her refusal to succumb to those forces served as a powerful narrative undercurrent until the very last page.
I gave this book 4 stars for an artfully crafted novel with a memorable message.
She imagined taking one step after the other into the churning sea, sinking into the stillness beneath the waves, strands of her hair suspending like black watercolor into the pale blue sea, her long fingers and arms drifting up toward the backlit blaze of the surface.
Vivid settings and complex characters
There’s another reason I almost didn’t read this book: It was a Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine Book Club pick.
I don’t have anything against Reese Witherspoon—it’s her taste in books I question. Prior to hearing the hype surrounding Where the Crawdads Sing, I read four of Reese’s selections, with mixed results.
- My 2018 pick for Best Fiction, Little Fires Everywhere, was one of Reese’s picks.
- Eleanor Oliphant is Totally Fine was totally OK.
- Daisy Jones and the Six was, for the most part, so formulaic and predictable that it may well have been cobbled together by AI trained on old episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music.
- The Night Tiger suffered from a frustrating inability to get out of its own way.
However different these books are from each other, one thing they share in common is incredibly vivid scene-setting. Reese and her book team have a knack for picking books by authors who know how to bring a scene and its characters to life—sights, sounds, smells, and all.
Where the Crawdads Sing is certainly consistent with its fellow Reese picks. Some of the scenes were so well-rendered and detailed, you could practically smell the damp in the air.
The vividness of the narrative wasn’t confined to the locale alone. Delia Owens was able—sometimes in just a few words—to help the reader inhabit Kya and her world, eloquently tapping into universal emotions uniquely experienced by Kya.
As I mentioned before, it’s just superb writing.
And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar.
Should you read the heavily hyped Where the Crawdads Sing?
Readers who enjoy contemporary literary fiction will find a lot to like in Where the Crawdads Sing. The book features modern themes in a historical setting, complex characters, and an immersive setting.
In addition, readers fatigued by literary nihilism and “unhappily ever after” endings will also find Where the Crawdads Sing to be the proverbial breath of fresh air. (And, did I mention, it’s just superb writing?)
Looking for a book featuring a strong female lead character? Check out Where the Crawdads Sing. Kya isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t always make good choices, but she learns to honor her intuition and live authentically.
Readers who are highly sensitive to (brief) depictions of violence or children in unstable situations may wish to skip this book (although the book treats such topics with great sensitivity.)
Where do your crawdads sing?
In this book, the hypothetical furthest reaches of the swamp, which the characters refer to as “where the crawdads sing,” can refer to the human spirit when pushed to its limits. Do you agree with this interpretation? What does the place “where the crawdads sing” signify to you?
The hype for Where the Crawdads Sing was heavy the year it was released. What impressions about a book do you tend to draw when it is heavily hyped? Have you ever been surprised—whether pleasantly or otherwise—by a heavily hyped book once you finally read it?
Have you completed Bookish Reading Challenge, 2019: #3. A book you’re embarrassed you haven’t read yet? If so, what book did you choose for the challenge? Now that you’ve read it, are you planning to connect with others who have read it, on social media or IRL?
Read and reflect with me
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Excerpts from Where the Crawdads Sing.