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Where the Crawdads Sing

June 1, 2019

My other formerly-southern friend who has lived in Ohio as long as I have, Beth, said she liked Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing, so I read it and found it a compelling story, with some North Carolina marsh naturalism thrown in as an extra benefit.

Beth and I have both spent many summers on boats and kayaks in the marshy areas around Charleston, South Carolina, from Shem Creek to Folly Beach. So the naturalism had an extra appeal for us, although I know we’re far from alone in enjoying the exploration of back waterways between banks of plough mud and Spartina grass.

The other friend she was recommending the book to is a former social worker, whose specialty was children, who became a teacher at an elementary school, working with children who have more needs than the regular classroom teachers can provide. I’m not sure she’ll like the first part of this book, which is about how the main character grew up almost entirely alone, without any adult she could trust to help her.

The main character, Kya, does grow up, though. She remembers her mother telling her to explore the marsh by saying “go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing” and the friend who teaches her to read later defines this phrase for her, saying that it means “far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.” That is, farther out than where she lives, deep in the marsh, because she routinely feeds a flock of gulls.

An autodidact who concentrates on biology, Kya reads not only to find out more about the world around her, but in an attempt to explain how people in her life have acted: “she searched for an explanation of why a mother would leave her offspring” after her mother left her. She doesn’t find the explanation in her biology books, though. Later she hears about the complicated human motives behind her mother’s desertion from another member of her family.

Kya has love affairs with males and believes that biology can explain how the males act towards her. At one point she is watching fireflies and thinking about mating:
“the female firefly flickers the light under her tail to signal to the male that she’s ready to mate. Each species of firefly has its own language of flashes. As Kya watched, some females signed dot, dot, dot, dash, flying a zigzag dance, while others flashed dash, dash, dot in a different dance pattern. The males, of course, knew the signals of their species and flew only to those females. Then…they rubbed their bottoms together like most things did, so they could produce young.
Suddenly Kya sat up and paid attention: one of the females had changed her code. First she flashed the proper sequence of dashes and dots, attracting a male of her species, and they mated. Then she flickered a different signal, and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings.
Kya watched others. The females got what they wanted—first a mate, then a meal—just by changing their signals.
Kya knew judgment had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same color in different light.”
Once you’ve read this passage, you know more about how this solitary human will act than any of the people who befriend her could know.

We, as readers, sympathize with Kya and find her blameless, but we can also see that the assumptions other characters make about her are sometimes wrong because she was not raised by humans. “She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.”

The last half of the novel revolves around a murder trial. You’ll think you know what’s going on, but there might be a surprise around a bend in the path if you haven’t been looking carefully at the small things you pass, like the main character always does.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2019 12:39 am

    Oddly enough, the Crawdads sang for us Wednesday – a concert in our auditorium. They’ve been a group since 1965, with a few replacements over the years. Folk and bluegrass and lots of energy. This is in Davis, California.

    • June 4, 2019 12:26 pm

      Ha! We went to a crawdad boil in Louisiana over the weekend.

  2. Bonnie Cline permalink
    June 3, 2019 8:47 pm

    I loved this book. Appreciate your perspective.

    • June 4, 2019 12:28 pm

      I can see why you’d love it. You also look carefully at the small things you pass!

  3. November 20, 2019 6:58 pm

    I do love how the female eats the male when sending out mating signals 😂

  4. March 20, 2020 1:45 pm

    A wonderful review, I just read it and absolutely loved it, the beginning was also amazing no matter what we think, it created fear in me as a reader, so I could understand better how she treated humans like the predator, the author so adeptly created a character that was like a bird fallen from the nest, one that against all odds survived, because of a strong survival instinct, even when I found myself wondering why she kept hiding – then it dawned on me, well of course, she is prey, that’s the animal instinct, pure, not conditioned as our is, protected by family, kept away from elements that might harm us, until we are of an age to protect ourselves. Just incredible, and even the story, it’s really all about the biology, she stays true to her tales of fireflies and toads, the plot was foretold through her observations of nature, brilliant!

    • March 22, 2020 4:21 pm

      Yes, I agree, the plot is obvious if you pay attention to what she knows half as carefully as she pays attention to what she sees around her.

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