As has become my tradition, at the beginning of each new year, I like to reflect on the books I’ve read in the year that’s just closed out (not necessarily books published in that year) and call out my favorite book (which is not necessarily a book published in the year just ended). Some years I’ve read a couple that were standouts. Some years a nonfiction book called my name. Other years, a novel.
In 2019, my favorite book turned out to be in the fiction category: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
Kya Clark astonishingly raises herself in the marshes of North Carolina beginning in her tenth year after her father abuses first her mother and then each of her siblings until they are forced to flee, one at a time. Eventually Kya, the youngest, is left on her own to live in the family’s shack.
Owens’ website summarizes the story aptly:
“Fans of Barbara Kingsolver will love this stunning debut novel from a New York Times bestselling nature writer, about an unforgettable young woman, abandoned at age ten to survive alone in the wild coastal marsh of North Carolina. For years, rumors of the ‘Marsh Girl’ haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet fishing village. Kya Clark is barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when the popular Chase Andrews is found dead, locals immediately suspect her.”
The story is a mystery, wrapped in a coming-of-age tale, swathed in an ode to nature.
Why It’s My Favorite Book
Where the Crawdad Sing stood out to me among all the other books I read in 2019 for a variety of reasons.
The beauty of the language.
I had heard about the book, which has sold 4 million copies in the year and a half since it was first printed. But when Cynthia Ruchti read the prologue to me, I rushed to my iPad to download the digital edition. I was overcome by so much beauty, power, and rawness.
Here are a few lines from the prologue as a foretaste of the writing’s lusciousness and the surprise twists Owens spins into it:
“Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat….There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wall of death begetting life.
“On the morning of October 30, 1969, the body of Chase Andrews lay in the swamp, which would have absorbed it silently, routinely….A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin.”
The compelling characters.
Not only is Kya a sympathetic character, whom the reader admires for her grit and courage in the face of abandonment by her family, but she’s also a poet and a lover of nature. She artfully replicates the beauty of nature through her drawings and writes gorgeous poetry.
Chase beguiles the reader–and Kya, but his heart is dark.
The one adult who befriends Kya, Jumpin’, holds his own among the other characters.
And Tate loves her in a youthful yet endearing way–and gives her the gift of reading and writing.
The fitting conclusion.
As with all good mysteries, I had no idea who killed Chase until the solution presents itself at the end of the book. It was as satisfying as it was surprising.
About the Author
Delia Owens’ life is as fascinating as her debut novel–and in many ways replicates Kya’s. Owens earned a BS in Zoology from the University of Georgia and a PhD in Animal Behavior at the University of California at Davis (just down the road from where I live). And lived in Africa as a wildlife scientist, including several years in Zambia protecting elephants from poachers. Her love of creatures and nature shine through each page of Crawdads, too.
Her success later in life.
Before attempting her first novel, which was published when she was 70 and living back in the United States, she and her then-husband, Mark, wrote three memoirs about their work among Africa’s wildlife. It’s unusual to write your first novel later in life, but even more surprising for it to be so well done–and so successful. It became an immediate best-seller upon its release when Reese Witherspoon selected it for her large and influential book club.
Mysteries of her own.
But Owens has mysteries stirring into the brew of her life, just as Kya did. Apparently Delia’s husband turned into a hardened vigilante when it came to protecting the elephants in Zambia’s reserve. He threw firecrackers from a Cessna and a helicopter into poaching campsites, trained and armed the park’s workers, and changed his focus from studying elephants to hunting poachers.
A poacher was shot and killed–and the killing was caught on camera while an ABC TV crew was filming the work on the reserve. Mark’s son, who was Delia’s stepson, was suspected of the death, but the Owens left Zambia, returning to the United States so they were never questioned about the murder.
Eventually, Delia and Mark divorced.
Delia’s life also echoes Kya’s in that Delia has lived much of her adulthood in isolation–first during her time in Africa and even today, living out in the countryside in Idaho and then in North Carolina.
To me, Delia is as complex and interesting as they characters and situations she invented in Where the Crawdads Sing.
What was your favorite book of 2019? What made it stand out from the others you read?
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