Sunday, 6 June 2021

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens

We began our discussion of Delia Owens' very popular novel, Where the crawdads sing, by talking about the title. ‘Crawdads’ are a type of yabby or crayfish.

This American book was inspired by some of the events in the life of the author, Delia Owens. She was a ‘wildlife scientist in Africa’ for some years. It was highly recommended to one of our members by an eminent scientist and environmentalist which helped to persuade us to read it.

It tells the story of Kya Clark, who was left by her family to live in the marshes of North Carolina at a very young age. After being sexually abused by a so-called admirer she is accused of his murder and so the novel revolves around her early life in nature and the subsequent court case.



First impressions:


  • I found it very readable although emotionally draining at first. 
  • Engaging, readable, a bit Mills and Boon like -- about the downtrodden girl. I didn’t believe many parts of it especially how a young person could be published and earn so much money from one book on shells. I liked the engagement with the natural world and the main character’s isolation from society. It was endearing but it was also curious. 
  • Why did she write this novel ?
  • I wasn’t sure about it. I heard some of it on ‘audible’. Last bit was too contrived. It had sad parts, eg when the character ‘Jumpin’ died. I engaged with the characters and enjoyed it.   
  • I got angry with the unrealistic story but I admired the structure of the book revolving around the court case and the police investigation and the time jumps between the story and the murder case. I thought the writing was beautiful about the characters.
  • I loved it and was engrossed by the story. I also found it very readable and liked the vivid writing about nature. I did not like the small town prejudices but having lived in America in the 1980s could understand the tone. It was also annoying at times.
  • I got used to the devices of time jumps. I also found an anachronism in it – she talks about Kya and Tate going on a picnic and using plastic cutlery in the late 1950s. I don’t think they would have had plastic cutlery even in the US at this time. It would have been metal cutlery I think? 
  • I saw flaws in this book, for instance, its sentimentality, but I was moved emotionally. It reminded me of a book I read when young called The girl of the Limberlost. ‘I thought the book was a bit suss. I didn’t like the poetry by Amanda Hamilton but it was important to the resolution’. Intellectually there were too many stereotypes – good African Americans and ‘bad’ white Americans with prejudices against the poor ‘white trash’ living in the marshes. 
  • I found it contrived but it had a good sense of place. I felt the murder was a bit out of character for Kya and the poetry ‘drove me batty’.
  • From an absent member –  a sense of Kya's gentle, almost secretive gliding around the water in the marshlands; she would look out for Tate, or birds or animals, disappear or hide on so many occasions. The language lent this feeling to the book. Loved how we didn't really know what she did through the years except survive remarkably, and occasionally see people, and somehow the story flowed such that I didn't wonder what she did. But then we find later in the book that she painted, recorded, observed, with the precision of a 'trained scientist' but using innate knowledge and feeling for the marsh and all nature there. It became her life, and it seemed so fitting. And the knowledge of what she did provided background that I found comforting and satisfying.


Further discussion


The other main characters in this novel are Tate, who was a good man and Chase who was not a good man or good lover. Kya was taken in by both boys (men) due to her loneliness and wanting so desperately to be in a relationship with another human. Kya knew that living alone with nature for company and stimulation for so long had changed her.

Chase was an ordinary lover and was fascinated by the exotic Kya. He was a tool for the author to show that Kya was able to surmount her difficulties of her early life. She was able to protect herself pretty well.

Kya was a lonely girl who somehow managed to survive. We then discussed how there was a sense that Kya’s loneliness and love of the marshes related to Owens' life trying to protect wildlife in Africa. We all wondered why she wrote this book? Was it to explore isolation and loneliness ?

We liked the light touches such as the ‘love’ game between Tate and Kya when they were exchanging feathers and other natural items found in the marsh. One member was frustrated that there were not many insects to bother Kya, which was a jarring note in her opinion. Another member commented that Kya was fortunate to look good after such a poor diet and lack of medical facilities and toiletries for many years.

The police were commented upon as leading quite a good investigation. They didn’t immediately jump to conclusions as they might have been suspected to do considering the lowly status of Kya. Some people in the town actually supported her too which was surprising considering they had not done so earlier.

It was surprising that Kya was able to acquire her father’s holding so easily. It was a little too neat.

The author wants the reader to believe that someone else eg Tate murdered Chase. But the last chapter convinces the reader that Kya got her revenge on Chase with the help of her friendly and kind lawyer. The lawyer could be a latter day ‘Atticus Finch’. The author is not a subtle writer.

We admired the writing in many places. For instance

Loved her magical descriptions eg the skunk family 

"Them scurrying behind [the mother], running into and over one another in black and white confusions." (page 296)

"The microscope's light (reflected in her dark pupils), and she drew in a breath as a Mardi Gras of costumed players pirouetted and careened into view. Unimaginable headdresses adorned astonishing bodies so eager for more life, they frolicked as though caught in a circus tent, not a single bead of water." (page 279)

And some very succinct descriptions eg:

"Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size."(page 151)
"Sleep avoided her, slinking around the edges, then darting away."(page 277)

This novel is really an allegory or fairy story with many stereotypes – for example Jumpin and his wife Mabel are Kya’s only friends and moral supporters. The rest of the town are against her as she is poor white trash and considered dirty by many people such as the minister’s wife and Chase’s mother. Although a few people advocated for her most didn’t. Barkly Cove served their religion ‘deep fried’.

Most of the action in this novel is through Kya’s eyes so it is a very biased viewpoint. It was not depicting social realities of the 1950s and 1960s in North Carolina.

It was on the best seller list for 2 years and is being made into a movie.

Present: 7 members

1 comment:

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