If I ever write a novel, I want it to be as accomplished as Where the Crawdads Sing. For a first effort, I think it is pretty darned good and worthy of a mention to me by my friend, Jayne.
It tells the story of Kya, the “Marsh Girl”, who is just that: a girl who inhabits a shack on the marsh on the coast of North Carolina, near to the town of Barkley Cove, living off her wits and surviving despite the absence of any help from anyone.
But Kya did have a family, once. One by one, they all left, leaving her to survive on her own and this all happens when Kya is a girl, not a teenager, but a mere girl of ten.
Switching between Kya’s childhood in the 1950s and the discovery of the body of Chase Andrews on the marsh in 1969, Owens is masterful in the way that she allows the story to develop. Kya’s ability to fend for herself is admirable and the help that she obtains from Jumpin’, the African American man who owns a pontoon on the marsh where fuel and supplies can be bought, assists her in living independently. His wife, Mabel also provides some maternal support as Kya becomes a woman as well as providing her with clothes and food when needed. Kya effectively dodges the truant officer and carves out a way to live in the marshes on her own, rarely going into town unless required.
Of course, her presence attracts attention; she is a fleeting figure to most on the marsh, glimpsed rather than encountered, a person of elusive mystery and when she enters the town, she is someone to be shunned or pitied.
But as she grows up, she becomes beautiful and alluring and an object of desire for some of the boys in the town who see her as easy prey. And Kya is so, so lonely, desperate for human company and a shred of kind attention.
First, she meets Tate, a fisherman’s son who also fishes on the marsh, was a friend of her brother, Jodie and who tempts her to meet him with offerings from nature, the feathers of the birds that inhabit the natural landscape that both he and Kya love. They become closer, sharing a love of the marsh and Tate wins her confidence like someone taming a wild animal. Kya craves love but is wary: people seem to leave her. Tate’s determination to befriend her brings her one of her greatest assets as he teaches her to read, Kya only having visited school once in her lifetime and finding it an experience that reminded her of her otherness, both in herself and to the people of Barkley Cove.
And then, there is Chase Andrews: high school jock, handsome, athletic, promiscuous. He, too, becomes entranced by Kya and wants her, the challenge she presents and the beauty she holds. He has no trouble getting girls as he is an alpha male, the main attraction for many of the eligible young ladies in the town. To be with him would be the pinnacle of everything they could achieve through marriage, with money, respectability, popularity and looks to keep him desirable. He is not used to being denied but he knows that Kya represents a completely different prospect to conquer than anyone that he has attempted to be with previously and so, he plays his approach to Kya with a combination of care and gentleness: he woos her and lures her with the prospect of making her his wife, of making her respectable and accepted.
So, when Chase Andrews ends up at the bottom of a fire tower on the marsh, his body found by two boys, the number one suspect for his demise is Kya. She is an easy target as she is an outsider. She was known to have a connection to him and why else would he have been at the fire tower unless he was meeting someone from the marsh?
Kya’s life at the time of Chase’s death is a relative success. Her dedicated time on the marsh has made her an expert to its workings: its birds, plants, grasses, creatures are all things of which she knows and she can illustrate them with a clarity that is breathtaking and can identify and name them, which makes her knowledge desirable. She has invested money in her home and as her circumstances have improved, she could attempt to enter society; however, the marsh is the only thing that has stayed constant in her life, her love for the land and its inhabitants sustaining her through excruciatingly difficult times. However, she is still a “Marsh Girl”, white trash squatting on the land that no-one else finds habitable to the majority of people in the town.
It is clear from the start of the book and the discovery of the body that Kya is going to be put on trial somehow, this becoming increasingly evident as the book progresses. There are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird in the portrayal of good African American people and white trash in the southern States, neither who are considered highly in the opinions of the affluent white people of the town. There is the hypocrisy of the good Christian folk who follow the word of God as long as it doesn’t mean extending a hand to those who are dirty, poor and uneducated or having to mix with them.
But, there are the good people too, the ones who see Kya for what she is, a girl, now a woman who has been abandoned and despite the odds, has survived, become self-sufficient and found a degree of success. She is to be applauded or, at least, supported now that she is found in a situation where she may be locked away.
This is a book about the resiliency that we can find in all of us, despite the odds presented to us; that in the face of loneliness, if we are determined enough to survive, we will endure; that there is much to find to comfort us in nature. In light of our current Covid situation and my personal circumstances, where moving to a new place in the middle of a pandemic has meant that I have no immediate friends, that my involvement with society is severely limited and that one of the only comforts I have is to take walks in nature that I can enjoy without restriction, I can relate to Kya’s situation (although I have not been abandoned) and I think that if she can make it through that, I will be fine.
And, just to note, once again, Reese Witherspoon has endorsed this book and we find ourselves in agreement. We have so much in common, Reese and I or at least, Eleanor Oliphant and The Library Book. And I very much enjoyed Legally Blonde.