Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I absolutely loved this, a surprise read, it was a gift from a friend who spends more time living in the wilderness than with humanity. When I read the bio of the author and saw she was a nature writer and wildlife scientist, with a degree in Zoology and a PhD in Animal Behaviour, I was even more attracted to the potential this might infuse, what looked like a murder mystery novel.

Delia’s research on the importance of female grouping in social mammals influenced her fictional writing. Where the Crawdads Sing explores the behavioral impact on a young woman who is forced to live much of her young life without a group.

It’s a slow burning, pleasurable observation of Kya, a girl as a fledgling, one pushed from the nest of family and abandoned before fully formed. And so she develops in a way not like others, highly observant, ultra sensitive to her surroundings, the marsh. They call her the marsh girl.

The marsh did not confine them but defined them and, like any sacred ground, kept their secrets deep. No one cared that they held the land because no one else wanted it.

Like any weak female species, she knows she is prey to the predator, and so acts in ways that might seem strange to other humans, who live within the security of a home and a community (although this is the 1960’s in North Carolina, so not all humans are treated equally).

When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump cards because they are passed on more frequently from one generation to the next than the gentler genes. It is not a morality but simple math. Among themselves, doves fight as often as hawks.

The story is told via twin narratives; the present day when a young man Chase Andrews is found dead at the base of a tower, and the question being asked is whether he fell or was pushed, and if pushed by who; and the past, the story of Kya, her abandonment, her survival, her friendship with Tate, with Chase, with Jumpin’ and Mabel, and how her feelings of rejection affect her relationships.

Her father stays long enough to teach her how to fish and navigate the channels with a boat, but when he leaves she has to learn to feed herself and make money to keep the boat in fuel.

The way the author makes the reader see Kya through the lens of biology and the behaviour of different species is stunning. When she described certain species behaviour, they were like clues to what was coming, I loved that she used nature as a guide.

Observing fireflies, she notices that each species has its own language of flashes to attract a mate. The males recognise the signals and fly only to the females of their species. But the female is capable of changing codes.

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 judgement 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 colour in different light.

Loneliness leads her towards trouble and lessons. The marsh and its inhabitants always reward her. Humans disappoint her and she withdraws more than ever. Fortunately her one friend Tate, teaches her to read and her knowledge of the marsh becomes more academic and her appetite for learning about and within her natural environment are insatiable.

Sitting outside the old cabin, she picked up a scientific digest. One article on reproductive strategies, was entitled “Sneaky Fuckers.”

:

Kya dropped the journal in her lap, her mind drifting with the clouds. Some female insects eat their mates, overstressed mammal mothers abandon their young, many males design risky or shifty ways to outsperm their competitors. Nothing seemed too indecorous as long as the tick and tock of life carried on. She knew this was not a dark side to Nature , just inventive ways to endure against the odds. Surely for humans there was more.

She tries to understand life through the biology she reads about and observes, but the community don’t tolerate difference and will create a narrative of their own in order to seek justice for one of theirs.

Ultimately Nature will decide.

A brilliant way of exploring human nature and our ecosystem, the culmination of a long career of observing wildlife and nature, now in that stage of life where she can share it perhaps more widely in the fictional form.

Delia Owens was born in southern Georgia and grew up with a close relationship to nature. After her studies, she and her husband drove over the central Kalahari in Botswana and set up camp there for 7 years studying lions and hyenas, co-authoring the book Cry of the Kalahari. From there they moved to Zambia, where they studied elephants and established a program offering jobs, loans, and other assistance to local villagers so they would not have to poach wildlife for a living. They lived 22 years in Africa before returning to to the US.

She wants to continue writing fiction, especially mysteries that explore how our evolutionary past on the savannas influenced our current behavior in a world less wild.

She has won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing and has been published in NatureThe African Journal of Ecology, and many others. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.