“Where the Crawdads Sing” is a literary phenomenon. In the library consortium (libraries from Aspen to Grand Junction and beyond) catalog of which the Basalt Library is a member, we currently circulate 106 hardback copies of this title with 370 people on the waitlist. The 44 audiobook copies have 262 potential listeners waiting, and 244 readers are waiting in line for one of the next 82 available ebook versions. It has captivated an audience that is unprecedented in my library experience, and I’m not sure why.
Almost exactly one year ago, this Basalt Library book review was written by Ann Scott about “Where the Crawdads Sing.” Now, a long, long waitlist (across all format types) for a title such as this one is astounding, aberrant, and surely a testimony to the storytelling from this first-time published author. The book has been on The New York Time’s top 10 bestselling list for over 60 weeks, and was described therein as “painfully beautiful.” Actress Reese Witherspoon (and her Hello Sunshine Book Club) said, “I can’t even express how much I love this book! I didn’t want this story to end!” It was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Awards Best Historical Fiction in 2019. All that praise is favorable; it’s inspiring when selecting a book. I have a penchant for reading a first-time novelist receiving the accolades and adoration that Delia Owen’s is earning this year, but is it worth the wait?
“Crawdads” is many stories at once. It’s a coming of age story of a Kya Clark, a feisty and rebellious girl who grows up in a shack in the marshlands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. At a very young age, she’s deserted one by one by her textbook dysfunctional family. She learns how to live on her own, eventually becoming known as the “Marsh Girl” of small-town Barkley Cove. The second storyline is about the comfort and simplicity of that marsh living. Nature itself is a starring character in a story filled with heartbreak and defiance, and an unforeseen twist at the end that is its third storyline: a hometown murder that Kya may or may not have committed. How could she have done it?
It may be the fan-based adoration that has made it so popular. Reese Witherspoon is a reliable authority on all things southern, and the book is definitely that: a testament to the landscape that surrounds and is embroiled in a small southern town in the late 1960s, early 1970s.
The natural references in “Crawdads” are standalone worthy of a read and harken to Owen’s own history as a naturalist. They transport the reader to a time and place most have likely never visited, one that engages all the senses: the salty, muddy smells of the marsh, the righteous sound of the waves and the cacophony of gulls, the sight of the long sweetgrass and fisherman’s paradise, the taste of the fresh bounty from the sea – that is caught regularly with much gratitude and respect from Kya. The elements of nature are her only friends for many, many years, and lead her to one day becoming a famous landscape artist.
Kya, in her seclusion, has developed particular likes and dislikes. Her gull friends are her family, the marsh is described as her mother. Not comfortable in public school, she defies and dodges the truant officers until they leave her alone. She is uneducated in a conventional sense but so knowledgeable in the changing seasons and fluctuations of the marsh that her awareness is unconscious. She learns how to barter for her food and fuel. She is pure, she is lonely, and eventually, she comes to an age when she desires companionship. That is where her uncomplicated life takes a troubling turn, but one she withstands with grace and conviction to her principles, such as they are in a socially unaware, nomadic young woman.
She does, however, intuitively understand good and evil and both of those archetypes are personified in the two young men who pursue her. Her innocence is as beautiful as the place she calls home, and each of these men want to possess it. One teaches her to read, the other to yearn. One is charming, the other is despicable. She’s not familiar with the intent of either suitor, but deep down understands that, even as she craves them, she should be wary of each.
The attraction, therefore, to the books is multi-dimensional. Its storylines are each “painfully beautiful” to different types of readers: to lovers of historical fiction, to admirers of powerful stories of women surviving under adverse circumstances, to social archeologists interested in the language and complexities of small-town southern living, and to amateur sleuths who are intrigued by a not-so-obvious murder mystery. It is a book that satisfies all the nuanced specificities and tastes of a modern fiction reader. It is, despite the long lists, worth the wait.