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'Where the Crawdads Sing' deserves an ovation

Where The Crawdads Sing
Where The Crawdads Sing

"Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 368 pages, in stores)

I am late to the party when it comes to reading “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the debut novel of Delia Owens.

When it was released almost exactly a year ago, it didn’t seem like my kind of book. I am a big fan of mysteries and crime fiction, and my taste runs more toward something with a harder edge. You know, hard-boiled homicide detectives chasing serial killers or hard-drinking private eyes crossing paths with gangsters, stuff like that.

But after seeing “Where the Crawdads Sing” at the top of the best-seller lists week after week and month after month on The Oklahoman’s book page, I decided I was going to have to read this book. Was it really that good, I asked myself?

The answer is yes. It is a fabulous book, all the more mesmerizing and surprising because it is Owens' first novel. Few authors get things as right as she does. Fewer still draw virtually unanimous praise from critics and everyday readers — but Owens has pulled off a magnificent feat and deserves to be celebrated for it. "Where the Crawdads Sing" is a mystery, a love story and a courtroom drama. If I have any criticism, it's that the judicial element is probably the weakest element of the three.

The story, set in the 1950s and ‘60s, centers on a girl named Kya, who grows up destitute in the coastal marshes of North Carolina, nearly isolated from the rest of the world. Eventually Kya’s siblings and mother all flee their shack in the marsh to escape the physical abuse they endure at the hands of Kya’s boozing father.

Kya’s father eventually abandons her, too. Kya — 10 years old, lonely and frightened — must survive on her own. She ventures even deeper into the wilds of the marsh to stay away from people.

She becomes the Marsh Girl, as the residents of the nearest town derisively call her. She faces the bigotry that one often does for being different. Distrustful of people, she learns life’s lessons not from human teachers but from the natural world.

Owens, the author, studied zoology and animal behavior and has a deep reverence for nature, which she describes as her best friend. It shows in her writing.

Kya is intelligent and fascinated by the creatures of the marsh, so she begins collecting shells and feathers, developing a different understanding of reality than that of most people, who live among the conveniences of modern life, distanced from the unending struggle to endure and live through each new season. Since she has no friends or family, her only entertainment is to observe, collect and record what is around her.

Kya’s connection to nature and how she learns to survive and protect herself is the best part of the book. It likely resonates more with women than with men. It strikes me as a feminist version of “My Side of the Mountain” in some ways.

Kya eventually meets a boy who deceives her. I won’t say more in case there is anyone left who hasn’t read the book. Reese Witherspoon has already bought the rights to it and is planning to produce a movie.

But whether you’re a man or woman, do yourself a favor. Read the book first. It’s hard to imagine a movie doing it justice.

— Ed Godfrey, The Oklahoman

Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›

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