Delia Owens’ "Where the Crawdads sing" is a best-seller. It doesn’t just say so on the cover : it really is a best-seller, and I am very glad that it should be. It’s got everything : social consciousness, condemnation of racism, exposure of domestic abuse, a detective story, a court drama, scathing exposure of snobbery, but also displays of generosity, kindness and humanity.
The main character is Catherine, nicknamed Kya. She is brutalized by an alcoholic father whom everyone avoids, including her own mother. In the end, she is left to live alone in a shack at the age of six, in the middle of the North Carolina marshes. Somehow, she manages to survive. While doing so, she unwittingly becomes an expert on marshland : its waterways, vegetation, fauna and marine life.
You would think that the good, righteous, church-going citizens of Barkley Cove, the nearest small town, would instinctively have organized help for this abandoned child… Not a bit. She is “white trash”, barely above the status of animals. Kya shows up at school, one day, only to be ridiculed and rejected by the other children. The teacher, who could have shown some Christian compassion (makes you wonder if there is such a thing) does nothing to discourage the little bullies. Kya will never go back to school after that. Paradoxically, the only person who develops a soft spot for Kya, is the county truancy officer. She can’t help admiring the ingenuity and survival skills of the child.
Kya grows up alone, with the reputation of a being a wild child. Soon, she is known only as The Marsh Girl, which means, of course, that when a young brutal and arrogant football player is found dead, she becomes the ideal suspect.
Two rays of sunshine in her dark life : Tate, a boy who is a few years older than her, and who teaches her how to read and write. There is also a black couple who run a small boat service station cum grocery shop on the wharf.
Kya loves, understands and studies the marsh ; to the extent that she manages to have several books published on the subject.
What props and sustains the plot and the characters, is Delia Owens’ style. Such beautiful, fluid, poetic prose ! As a reader, you are made to see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel the mash. To the five senses Delia Owens ads the sixth sense of dreams and exaltation. She is not just a great writer : she is also a scientist. Her style is clear ; the structures of the story are impeccably constructed, all the way to the unexpected twist at the end.
We have more than a masterpiece, here : we have what will become an American classic.