The Marsh Girl

Even as a young girl growing up in Southern Georgia, Delia Owens has always dreamt of becoming a writer. However, her childhood dream got sidelined once she entered university. Owens decided to pursue a career in science and completed her Bachelor of Science in Zoology at the University of Georgia. It was while studying as a graduate student at the same university that she met her former husband, Mark Owens in a protozoology class. The couple got married in 1973 and a year later, they flew to Africa to carry on their research study involving animals. They first stayed in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert before they moved to Zambia after being expulsed by the Botswanan government due to their opposition to the cattle industry.

Nevertheless, for their research and their conservation efforts, the couple received several recognitions. However, their stay in Africa came to a screeching halt. After more than two decades of stay in southern Africa, the couple returned to the United States abruptly after a suspected poacher was shot and killed. In their conservationist efforts, the couple made it a life-long mission to prevent poaching. The situation snowballed when their prevention methods were brought into question. While Owens vehemently denied the allegations, the former couple is still wanted by the Zambian government for questioning. Back in the United States, Owens continued her conservation efforts, even co-founding the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation in her home state.

Taking a detour from her original plan and finding herself in a new environment, however, have not dimmed Owens’ dreams of writing. During her stay in Africa, she managed to complete three memoirs that captured the former couple’s endeavors and experiences as naturalists and environmentalists in a territory not their own. She took it up a notch in 2018 when, after decades of dedicating herself to nature, Owen published her debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing. Her first novel, published in her late sixties, was coming full circle. It was warmly received by readers and critics alike. It was a literary sensation, selling almost five million copies in 2019 alone, propelling the book to the top of The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers for both 2019 and 2020. With an estimated 15 million copies sold as of July 2022, it is easily one of the bestselling books of all time.

“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.”

~ Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

The heart and soul of Owens’ first venture into prose was Catherine Danielle Clark who was shortly referred to as Kya throughout the story. Her story commenced in 1952 when the six-year-old Kya watched her mother leave her her family behind. Soon after, Kya’s older siblings Missy, Murph, Mandy, and Jodie – she was the youngest – also started leaving the shack in the middle of the North Carolina marsh they were living in. The main culprit for their exodus was their father who was an alcoholic. Once the spirit of the bottle seizes him, he becomes extremely physically abusive. Following the departure of everyone in the family, things started to change for the better. Father and daughter, despite the distance between them, even shared tender moments. Things are too good to be true as her father sobered up and stopped drinking.

As they say in life, and as Kya would realize, nothing in life is permanent except for change. A final plot twist will eventually lead to Kya living alone at the age of nine. Despite her age, Kya knew and understood the marsh. She was also clever and resourceful. These qualities were seminal in Kya’s survival in the direst straits. In nature, Kya found her commune, her own small pocket of safe haven. To support herself, Kya started cultivating her own garden. Fishing, which she learned from her father, came in handy as well. She also traded fresh mussels and smoked fish for money and oil. Through their transactions, Kya would earn a friend in Jumpin’, the Black owner of the local gasoline station. Together with his wife, Mabel, they looked after Kya’s well-being.

Meanwhile, Kya tried to avoid the rest of the town altogether. The rest of the town referred to her as the “Marsh Girl”. She was ostracized by the locals because of the life she was living. Nevertheless, there was a part of Kya that wanted to be accepted by everyone, but it was only met with ridicule. When she tried to attend school, she was laughed at by her fellow pupils. The pastor’s wife even called her filthy and nasty. Kya deemed it better to avoid the rest of the town lest she experiences further prejudice. Different forms of prejudice still abound in the contemporary. Time and time again, men have shown that they are afraid of things they do not understand. To the locals, Kya was an outcast. She was not one of them.

This tenuous relationship between Kya and the rest of the town would be placed at the fore once again. An unfortunate event, the untimely demise of a local celebrity disrupted the relative quietness that pervaded the air of Barkley Cove. The novel commenced in the year 1969 when the lifeless body of Chase Andrews, the town’s golden boy, was found in the marsh. It was initially ruled out as an accident but as the police dug deeper, his death was what not it seemed to be. Or was it? Pieces of evidence unearthed seem to point to a murder case. Furthermore, as the pieces of the puzzle started to fit, the grim picture implicated Kya. She was the obvious choice. She had the motive. She had the opportunity. She was the Marsh Girl. She was frowned upon by the community. It was Kya – and the few who had her back – against the world.

“In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.”

~ Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

The development of this murder mystery alternated with the story of Kya. This paradox rendered the story a compelling complexion and interesting texture. These two strands also were the preoccupation of Owens in the novel’s first part titled The Marsh. The first part contained the novel’s strongest writing. In the second part of the book titled The Swamp, the story subverts into a courtroom drama that only further underlined the gap between Kya and the residents of Barkley Cove. The second part, however, was a contrast to the stronger writings of the first part. The development of the second part was predictable and the writing was a digression from the first part.

Execution aside, the novel had wonderful merits. For one, the feeling of isolation and abandonment was vividly captured by Owens. As captured by the story of Kya, not all forms of isolation are bad. Those with a weak constitution would have balked at the discrimination experienced by Kya. But Kya was made of sterner stuff. Living virtually isolated from the rest of the world, in the recesses of the marsh, made Kya blossom into a young woman. She grew up into a young independent woman who relied on herself and on what nature can provide. In distancing herself from the rest of society, Kya was also able to learn about nature. It allowed her to pay attention to her surroundings. In the process of learning more about nature, Kya was also learning more about herself.

The book’s most affectionate writing captured Kya’s coming-of-age story. As the story moved forward, we read as she learned how to navigate life and, at the same time, discover new emotions. There were even undertones of romance, experiences which would help Kya reckon more with her own emotions. In more than one way, Kya was a character to who many can relate. She experienced several heartbreaks and met several people who disappointed her but she still yearns for someone who will stay. Astutely and sympathetically crafted by Owens, she was a character readers gravitate to despite the layers of mystery she was wrapped in; there was still a palpable distance between her and the readers. She was a character anyone would want to root for because of the discrimination and the several abandonment she had to cope with.

One of the book’s more breathtaking facets was the expansive imagery Owens wove. It was a rich tapestry brimming with vivid images of nature. The idyll of Kya’s environment was breathtakingly painted by Owens. Owens’ experience as a naturalist and environmentalist featured prominently in the story. The images of the marsh, from the wild to the untameable to the unexplorable to the complex, she was able to conjure through her writing. The marsh came alive with Owens’ vivid writing. She was able to turn the wilderness into a thing of beauty. There were references to birds and different animals. The nature-infused plot was also able to subtly grapple with the social inequities present in the countryside. The class divide showed how the destitute are inevitably connected with nature. There were also elements of domestic and sexual abuse woven into the novel’s tapestry.

“Just like whiskey, the marsh dwellers bootlegged their own laws-not like those burned onto stone tablets or inscribed on documents, but deeper ones, stamped in their genes. Ancient and natural, like those hatched from hawks and doves. When cornered, desperate or isolated, man reverts to those instinct that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump card 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.”

~ Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Published when she was nearly into her seventies, Where the Crawdads Sing also serves as a reminder that it is never too late to pursue one’s passion. As long as the spark is still there, we can overcome the odds and realize our dreams. Age, after all, is just a number. And in her debut novel, Owens was able to demonstrate the sharpness of her proverbial pen. Parts-mystery fiction, parts-courtroom drama, parts-coming-of-age story, Where the Crawdads Sing was a multifaceted novel that has elevated Owens to global stardom. It was a roaring start to what was a long-awaited venture into the world of prose. It was not difficult to see why. Through Kya, Owens gifted the world with a memorable character.

Kya was the glue that held the story, making her easily one of the characters many a reader will root for. She was an image of contrasts. She was shy and timid but she was also resourceful and innovative. She was a recluse but she yearned for people who will stay. It was these contrasts that gave the story different textures. She also did not let the disadvantages thrown her way, including blatant discrimination, physical abuse, and constant abandonment, hold her back. Indeed, she was built differently. Where one sees disadvantage, she sees opportunity. In her isolation, she appealed to the depths of her soul to muster the spirit to roar back at life. Relying on her own devices, she blossomed into a young independent woman who was capable of looking after and fending for herself amidst the sea of wilderness. It was also this wilderness, equally beautiful, that gave the novel its character. While it was not perfect as many stories are, Where the Crawdads Sing was a wonderfully crafted coming-of-age story.

“She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would.”

~ Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Rating

69%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
18%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

I can’t remember when or where I first encountered Where the Crawdads Sing. One thing, however, was clear: the book was ubiquitous. Despite it being everywhere, I was a little apprehensive about reading the book. First, I have a lot of books lined up for reading and, second, I have no iota about who Delia Owens was. It did not help that I was a little averse (back then) to stories where nature play a critical role. I would eventually relent, curious about what the book and the author have to offer. Even when I had my copy of the book, I was reluctant to start reading it. Things changed when I learned that the book was adapted into a film released earlier this year. Learning about the controversies surrounding the writer further fueled my anticipation for the book. I then made the book part of my venture into American literature. I did like the story’s premise. I also liked Owens’ writing, to a point. I was immersed in the story even though it toggles in and out of the past and the story’s present. There was, however, a noticeable shift midway through the story that hampered my appreciation for the novel. The enjoyed the first half more than the second half as I found the second half predictable. The novel had bright spots but I guess my having too high of an expectation of the book also played a role in my lukewarm response to the story. With the parallels between the novel and Owens’ own life, one can’t help but feel that the novel was her response to the accusations. Or maybe not. This is, after all, a work of fiction.

Book Specs

Author: Delia Owens
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 368
Genre: Bildungsroman, Mystery

Synopsis

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 years 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.

About the Author

Delia Owens was born on April 4, 1949, in Georgia, United States. She grew up in Thomasville, Georgia, and studied biology at the University of Georgia. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and obtained a Ph.D. in animal behavior from the University of California Davis.

It was while studying biology that she met her first husband, Mark. They married in 1973 and shortly after, they flew to South Africa to commence their research studying animals in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. For their Kalahari Research Project, the couple received awards such as the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1981. After campaigning against the local cattle industry, the couple was expelled by the Botswanan government. The couple then moved to North Luangwa National Park, Zambia, and later to Mpika, Zambia, in the early 1990s. Toward the end of the 20th century, the couple moved to Zambia. The couple again found themselves in hot waters after they were accused of operating a “shoot to kill” policy against poachers. In 1996, they were even featured by the ABC news-magazine show Turning Point in a report entitled “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story” which featured the death of a poacher alleged to have been killed by Delia’s stepson, Christopher. Owens profusely denied the allegation.

She and her former husband fled Zambia but are still wanted for questioning regarding the death. The couple has already divorced. Upon returning to the United States, Owens first resettled in Boundary County, Idaho before moving to a former horse farm near Asheville, North Carolina. Owens, a renowned conservationist, then co-founded the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Owens has also worked as a roving editor for International Wildlife and lectured throughout North America. She is also taking part in the conservation efforts for the grizzly bear throughout the United States.

Prior to pursuing a career in biology and environmental conservation, Owens has always wanted to be a writer but shifted her focus to biology after entering university. While in Africa, she published three memoirs that captured the couple’s experiences. The first one was Cry of the Kalahari which was published in 1984. It was followed by The Eye of the Elephant (1992) and Secrets of the Savanna (2006). In 2018, she made her long-awaited debut in prose with the publication of Where the Crawdads Sing. It was an instant commercial success and was even adapted into a film released in 2022.