It sings of the strength of character of an abandoned child able to survive alone in Nature. It sings of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of loneliness. It sings of the coming of age of that child and her growth into a brilliant self-taught field naturalist and successful author. Mostly it sings of the wonders of Nature and its power to teach and sustain and heal the wounded spirit.
On another level, this is a murder mystery and that is how it begins.
In 1969, two boys riding their bikes along the marshes of the North Carolina coast come upon the body of Chase Andrews, half submerged in water and hidden by the marsh grasses. The body is underneath an abandoned fire tower and appears to have fallen through an opening at the top of the tower more than 60 feet up.
When the sheriff comes to investigate, he finds that there is no trace of how Chase got there - no footprints, no tire tracks, nothing to show how he came to the tower and nothing to show that anyone else was there. But the position of the body seems to indicate that he had fallen backwards from the tower. Was he pushed? The sheriff thinks it likely.
From there, we flash back to 1952 to a shack in the marshes where the Clark family lives. At this point, there are a mother, father, son, and daughter. There had been three older children but as soon as they were able they left to get away from their brutal drunken father.
One day, while the father is gone, the brutalized mother (Ma in the narrative), still bearing bruises from her latest beating, packs her shabby cardboard suitcase and leaves. Six-year-old Catherine Danielle, aka Kya, watches her mother walk down their lane and disappear into the world. She never sees her mother again.
That leaves the child with her brother Jodie and her father (Pa). Jodie hangs around for a while but as soon as he can, he, too, leaves.
Pa is seldom home for long. He receives a disability payment from being injured in World War II, barely enough for them to survive, but he gambles and drinks most of it away. He stays away from home for longer and longer periods and finally he's gone for good. Kya, by then ten years old, is left alone and must learn to survive.
Alone, she learned to trust the land, the marsh.
“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn't know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”The people who lived in the marshes were looked down upon by the white residents of towns like nearby Barkley Cove. They were considered "marsh trash" and were treated with the same prejudice as were the black residents of the area. Kya had to find a way to exist and get what she needed to live on the edges of such an unforgiving society. How she does it makes for mesmerizing, painfully beautiful reading.
Kya does find some allies and friends, among them the owner of the store where she used to sometimes go with her father to get gas for his boat. He is a black man called Jumpin'. He and his wife Mabel do all they can to help this lonely white child who they recognize has been abandoned.
And then there is Tate, a teenaged boy who had once been a friend of Jodie's and had played with Kya as a child. He befriends Kya, teaches her to read and starts her on the road to becoming an acclaimed naturalist. He also becomes her first love.
But mostly her friends are the birds and other animals of the coastal marshes, most especially the gulls that she delights in feeding. They are the inhabitants of the places "where the crawdads sing," out there beyond all human society where Nature reigns supreme.
How all of this background links up with that body found under the fire tower is the meat of this story. It is a memorable story with memorable characters, masterfully written by a woman who obviously understands the connections in Nature.
Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who, with her husband, has previously written three bestselling nonfiction books about African wildlife. This is her first book of fiction. I hope it will not be her last.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars