The BookBrowse Review

Published December 5, 2018

ISSN: 1930-0018

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In This Edition of
The BookBrowse Review

Highlighting indicates debut books

Editor's Introduction
Reviews
Hardcovers Paperbacks
First Impressions
Recommended for Book Clubs
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Novels


Historical Fiction


Short Stories/Essays


Mysteries


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Biography/Memoir


History, Science & Current Affairs


True Crime

  • Burned by Edward Humes (rated 5/5)

Advice


Young Adults

Short Stories/Essays

  • Black Enough by Ibi Zoboi, Tracey Baptiste, Coe Booth, Dhonielle Clayton, Brandy Colbert (rated 5/5)

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Extras
Where the Crawdads Sing
Where the Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens

Hardcover (14 Aug 2018), 384 pages.
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
ISBN-13: 9780735219090
BookBrowse:
Critics:
Readers:
  

Winner of the 2018 BookBrowse Debut Novel Award

How long can you protect your heart?


For years, rumors of the "Marsh Girl" have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life - until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

1.
Ma
1952

The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh's moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron's wings lifting from the lagoon. And then, Kya, only six at the time, heard the screen door slap. Standing on the stool, she stopped scrubbing grits from the pot and lowered it into the basin of worn-out suds. No sounds now but her own breathing. Who had left the shack? Not Ma. She never let the door slam.

But when Kya ran to the porch, she saw her mother in a long brown skirt, kick pleats nipping at her ankles, as she walked down the sandy lane in high heels. The stubby-nosed shoes were fake alligator skin. Her only going-out pair. Kya wanted to holler out but knew not to rouse Pa, so opened the door and stood on the brick-'n'-board steps. From there she saw the blue train case Ma carried. Usually, with the confidence of a pup, Kya knew her mother would return with meat wrapped in greasy brown paper or with a chicken, head dangling down. But she never wore the gator heels, never took a case.

Ma always looked back where the foot lane met the road, one arm held high, white palm waving, as she turned onto the track, which wove through bog forests, cattail lagoons, and maybe-if the tide obliged-eventually into town. But today she walked on, unsteady in the ruts. Her tall figure emerged now and then through the holes of the forest until only swatches of white scarf flashed between the leaves. Kya sprinted to the spot she knew would bare the road; surely Ma would wave from there, but she arrived only in time to glimpse the blue case-the color so wrong for the woods--as it disappeared. A heaviness, thick as black-cotton mud, pushed her chest as she returned to the steps to wait.

Kya was the youngest of five, the others much older, though later she couldn't recall their ages. They lived with Ma and Pa, squeezed together like penned rabbits, in the rough-cut shack, its screened porch staring big-eyed from under the oaks.

Jodie, the brother closest to Kya, but still seven years older, stepped from the house and stood behind her. He had her same dark eyes and black hair; had taught her birdsongs, star names, how to steer the boat through saw grass.

"Ma'll be back," he said.

"I dunno. She's wearin' her gator shoes."

"A ma don't leave her kids. It ain't in 'em."

"You told me that fox left her babies."

"Yeah, but that vixen got 'er leg all tore up. She'd've starved to death if she'd tried to feed herself 'n' her kits. She was better off to leave 'em, heal herself up, then whelp more when she could raise 'em good. Ma ain't starvin', she'll be back." Jodie wasn't nearly as sure as he sounded, but said it for Kya.

Her throat tight, she whispered, "But Ma's carryin' that blue case like she's goin' somewheres big."

The shack sat back from the palmettos, which sprawled across sand flats to a necklace of green lagoons and, in the distance, all the marsh beyond. Miles of blade-grass so tough it grew in salt water, interrupted only by trees so bent they wore the shape of the wind. Oak forests bunched around the other sides of the shack and sheltered the closest lagoon, its surface so rich in life it churned. Salt air and gull-song drifted through the trees from the sea.

Claiming territory hadn't changed much since the 1500s. The scattered marsh holdings weren't legally described, just staked out natural-a creek boundary here, a dead oak there-by renegades. A man doesn't set up a palmetto lean-to in a bog unless he's on the run from somebody or at the end of his own road.

The marsh was guarded by a torn shoreline, labeled by early explorers as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" because riptides, furious winds, and shallow shoals wrecked ships like paper hats along what would become the North Carolina coast. One seaman's journal read, "rang'd along the Shoar . . . but could discern no Entrance ... A violent Storm overtook us ... we were forced to get off to Sea, to secure Ourselves and Ship, and were driven by the Rapidity of a strong Current ...

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The North Carolina marsh where Kya lives has long been a sanctuary for outsiders. How does this setting shape the novel? How does growing up in this isolation affect Kya? In what ways does her status as an “outsider” change how others see her?
  2. Why does Kya choose not to go back to school? Do you think she makes the wrong decision? How does Kya’s lack of formal education shape her vision of the world? Would her character be different if she had gone to school?
  3. After Jodie and Pa leave Kya alone, she becomes close to Jumpin’ and Mabel. Why are these two adults drawn to Kya? What do they teach her about the world? Do you agree with Jumpin’s decision to protect Kya from social services (p. 110) and to encourage her to live alone in the marsh? Why or why not?
  4. Why do you think Kya’s mother leaves in the beginning? Do you agree with her decision?
  5. Kya often watches the other young people from town — she even nicknames them “Tallskinnyblonde, Ponytailfreckleface, Shortblackhair, Alwayswearspearls, and roundchubbycheeks” (p. 80). What does Kya learn from observing these girls? Why do you think she keeps her watching secret? Do you agree with Kya’s secrecy?
  6. How is womanhood explored throughout the novel? What does being a woman mean to Kya? How does she relate to the other women in Barkley Cove?
  7. Discuss Kya’s relationship with Tate. How does Tate’s understanding of Kya change over time? Is Tate a good partner for Kya? Why or why not?
  8. Tate’s father tells him that poems are important because “they make ya feel something” (p. 48). What does poetry mean to Tate? What does it mean to Kya? How does poetry help Kya throughout the novel?
  9. On page 142, Kya watches the fireflies near her shack, and notices that the females can change their flashes to signal different things. What does this realization mean to Kya? What does it teach her about relationships? How does this lesson influence Kya’s decisions in the second half of the novel?
  10. Discuss how Kya’s observations of nature shape her vision of the world. Do you think these lessons adequately prepare her for life in Barkley Cove? Do you think human society follows the same rules as the natural world? Should it? Why or why not?
  11. Is Chase a different kind of man than Tate? How are they different? Is one man better? Do you think that their differences are biological or learned? How does Kya see each man?
  12. In the end of the novel, Kya thinks “Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core” (p. 363). What does she mean? Do you agree with her philosophy? What do you think it means to be a good person? Do you think Kya is a good person? Why or why not?
  13. Were you surprised by the verdict in the Chase’s murder trial? What about by the ending of the novel? Do you agree with Tate’s final decision? Why or why not?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

In Delia Owens's debut novel, a young woman who's survived a solitary childhood in a shack in North Carolina's marsh country looks for love and builds a career in science.

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Voted 2018 Best Debut Novel Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

Where the Crawdads Sing was a hit even before being chosen for Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine Book Club – and it's easy to see why so many have taken this debut novel into their hearts. It's a gripping mystery but also a tender coming-of-age story about one woman's desperately lonely upbringing and her rocky route to finding love and a vocation. Not only that, but its North Carolina marsh setting is described in lyrical language that evinces Delia Owens's background in nature writing (see Beyond the Book).

We first meet Kya Clark in 1952. The marshland surrounding the Clarks' shack has been a haven for fugitives and runaway slaves; though it's not far from Barkley Cove, it seems to have its own rules based on instinct and survival. Six-year-old Kya watches Ma leave with a blue suitcase in hand, and before long Pa's drunken violence has also driven off the last of her four older siblings, her brother Jodie.

Pa disappears for weeks at a time, leaving Kya to subsist on grits and soda crackers. The thought of a hot lunch lures her into attending second grade for a day, but after the kids call her "swamp trash" and make fun of her for not knowing how to spell, she vows to never set foot in school again. For years she survives by picking mussels and trading them for dry goods and kerosene at the general store run by Jumpin' and Mabel. As African Americans in the South, they know what it's like to be ostracized, and become like family to white Kya.

Kya's other source of support is Jodie's friend Tate, who shares her love of nature and teaches her to read when she's 14. Tate brings her rare feathers, science books and paint for her sketches. Their budding romance is cut short when Tate leaves for college. Although he promises to come back for Kya, the years pass and she's still alone, writing and illustrating field guides to the region's shells and birds. When she's 19, star quarterback Chase Andrews catches her eye and starts wooing her over picnics. Soon he's talking marriage, though he still hasn't introduced Kya to his parents or friends. Does he really love her, or is he just making a trophy out of "the Marsh Girl"?

Early on in the novel we learn that Chase Andrews will be found dead in 1969, having fallen from the fire tower into the swamp. No fingerprints or footprints are found; it doesn't seem like suicide or an accident. Soon rumor points to "the crazy lady on the marsh" because of her clandestine relationship with Chase. In between sections about Kya's childhood and adolescence, there are short updates on the 1969 investigation. As the two story lines converge, the chapters become more rapid-fire. Owens ramps up the tension, culminating in top-notch courtroom scenes as Kya stands trial for murder. The novel's third-person narration is coy, omitting certain scenes to allow readers to speculate right along with the prosecution.

Although the novel focuses on the years between 1965 and 1970, it encompasses the whole span of Kya's life. At times I found it hard to believe that the plucky urchin living off of grits and evading truant officers is the same character as the willowy nature writer wondering who will love her and never leave. Also, the chronology becomes slightly difficult to follow as it approaches 1969, and there are perhaps a few too many Amanda Hamilton poems. (You'll have to read the novel to find out more about who this fictional poet is!)

The use of animal behavior metaphors works very well, though. Kya understands her fellow humans by analogy, asking why a mother animal might leave her cubs or why males compete for female attention. The title refers to places where wild creatures do what comes naturally, and throughout the book we are invited to ponder how instinct and altruism interact and what impact human actions can have in the grand scheme of things, as in this passage about the marsh swallowing Chase's body: "the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff. … A swamp knows all about death, and doesn't necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin."

In Kya, Owens has created a truly outstanding character. The extremity of her loneliness makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of her oddities. If you like the idea of a literary novel flavored with elements of mystery and romance, and of a poetic writing style tempered with folksy Southern dialect, Crawdads is a real treat.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

New York Times
The wildlife scientist Delia Owens has found her voice in Where the Crawdads Sing, a painfully beautiful first novel that is at once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative and a celebration of nature. The author, with her husband, Mark, of three books about southern Africa, Owens here surveys the desolate marshlands of the North Carolina coast through the eyes of an abandoned child. And in her isolation that child makes us open our own eyes to the secret wonders — and dangers — of her private world.

New York Journal of Books
Owens’ writing is tight, yet sumptuous. It is abundant with descriptive prose and brings the reader straight to the edges of the briny marsh waters, and directly into the mind of the Marsh Girl. Reading this story is at once a study in the ecological environment as much as it is an exquisite virtual experience to a unique place in our natural world. The conclusion is haunting and unexpected, yet leaves a sense of fulfillment as all well-told stories do.

Historical Novel Society
Kya’s loneliness and heartbreak each time someone abandons her is palpable and heart-wrenching. We feel her yearning to connect with others and to be loved. Owens adeptly alternates plotlines, which creates the anticipation of what is to come. Both Kya and the marsh are the main characters of this immersive and moving story of love and belonging mixed with mystery and suspense. This is a deeply affecting novel, lyrical and unforgettable.

Reese Witherspoon
I can’t even express how much I love this book! My September pick is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. It’s about a young woman named Kya, who’s left to raise herself in the marshes of North Carolina when her family abandons her at a young age. There is so much to her story: romance, mystery, and a murder… and it takes place in the breathtaking backdrop of the South. I didn’t want this story to end!

Publishers Weekly
Owens memorably depicts the small-town drama and courtroom theatrics, but perhaps best of all is her vivid portrayal of the singular North Carolina setting.

Kirkus Reviews
Despite some distractions, there's an irresistible charm to Owens' first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Booklist
Because the characters are painted in broad, unambiguous strokes, this is not so much a naturalistic novel as a mythic one, with its appeal rising from Kya's deep connection to the place where she makes her home, and to all of its creatures.

Author Blurb Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
A lush debut; Owens delivers her mystery wrapped in gorgeous, lyrical prose.

Author Blurb Christopher Scotton, author of The Secret Wisdom of the Earth
With prose luminous as a low-country moon, Owens weaves a compelling tale of a forgotten girl in the unforgiving coastal marshes of North Carolina. It is a murder mystery/love story/courtroom drama that readers will love, but the novel delves so much deeper into the bone and sinew of our very nature, asking often unanswerable questions, old and intractable as the marsh itself. A stunning debut!

Author Blurb David Joy, author of The Line That Held Us
Where The Crawdads Sing carries the rhythm of an old time ballad. It is clear Owens knows this land intimately, from the black mud sucking at footsteps to the taste of saltwater and the cry of seagulls.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Matt H.
Excellent
Wonderful book.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sandi W.
The author gives you the visual, the characters give you the familiarity
Seldom does a book leave you with a warm and completed feeling. Especially one revealing a murderer in its closing paragraphs. But this is the book that managed to do just that.

Delia Owens introduces you to a wonderful list of characters. Then she sends them on their way to circle around one little waif of a girl, as she tries to circumvent isolation and loneliness. Kya, known to others as the Marsh Girl, lives a lonely life in an old marsh cabin, left on her own from an early age, trying to understand and accept her solitary existence.

Long after I have put this book down I will be thinking of the characters and setting of this book. Both were exquisitely written. Within just a few pages you are drawn into this world. You are set down in a marshland, taken back, where things were, as they always have been. Space, time and distance melt away and you are there, silently moving alongside the characters, bringing them to life. Smelling the brackish water, hearing the drone of insects, watching the birds fly. The author gives you the visual, the characters give you the familiarity.

This is a book that will take your breath away. Not one to be missed.

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Nature Writers Who Also Write Fiction

Nature WritersBefore she wrote Where the Crawdads Sing, Idaho-based Delia Owens co-authored three nature books (with her former husband, Mark Owens) based on wildlife research in Africa: Cry of the Kalahari (1984), which won the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing, The Eye of the Elephant (1992), and Secrets of the Savanna (2006). She's not the only author who has turned to fiction after a long career in science or nature writing. Others have alternated between the two genres throughout their working life. Here are four more authors who have had similar cross-genre success.

Edward AbbeyEdward Abbey (1927‒1989) mostly wrote about the American West. He studied English and philosophy at the University of New Mexico. In 1957 he was a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing fellow at Stanford University and worked as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument near Moab, Utah. During his time there he made notes for Desert Solitaire, an autobiographical nature book that wasn't published until 1968. He also worked at other national parks including Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Florida Everglades. Along with eight novels, the most famous of which is The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), he published poetry and multiple nature books.

Annie DillardAnnie Dillard (1945‒ ) was born in Pittsburgh and has held academic roles at Western Washington University and Wesleyan University. In 1975 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a poetic account of her explorations of the woods near Roanoke, Virginia. Since then she has written poems, memoirs and essays that combine literary criticism with travel and nature writing. In addition, she is the author of two novels, The Living (1992), about the first European settlers on the Pacific Northwest coast, and The Maytrees (2007), about a married couple in Provincetown in the years following the Second World War. The latter was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Robert Michael PyleRobert Michael Pyle (1947‒ ) grew up in Colorado, where he first developed a love of butterflies. After earning a PhD in butterfly ecology from Yale University, he worked as a conservation biologist everywhere from Oregon to Papua New Guinea. He is the author of more than 20 books, all of them broadly nature-themed, including Wintergreen: Listening to the Land's Heart (1986), which won the John Burroughs Medal, and Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place (2007), which received the National Outdoor Book Award. Like Owens, he has only recently turned to fiction after a long career in science; his debut novel, Magdalena Mountain, was published in August. Pyle lives in rural Washington.

Melissa HarrisonMelissa Harrison (1975‒ ) is an English author known equally for her fiction and nature writing. Her three novels, Clay (2013), At Hawthorn Time (2015, long-listed for the Bailey's Women's Prize), and All Among the Barley (2018), reflect on the wildlife of England's cities and countryside in different ways. She is also the author of Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (2016), which was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize; and edited the series of four seasonal anthologies issued by the Wildlife Trusts, starting with Spring in 2016. Her journalism features in British newspapers including the Times, Financial Times, and Guardian.

Edward Abbey
Robert Michael Pyle
Melissa Harrison

By Rebecca Foster

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