Reconstructing Rural Discourse.

AuthorTulloch, Bailey
PositionAnnual Book Review Issue

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. By Delia Owens. New York: Putnam. 2018. Pp. ix, 368. $26.


Delia Owens "defied the new laws of gravity" (1) with the success of her 2018 novel Where the Crawdads Sing. Described as "both a coming-of-age tale and an engrossing whodunit," (2) the novel situates readers in the desolate marshlands of the North Carolina coast, looking through the eyes of an abandoned child named Kya. The first half of the story feels almost transcendentalist, focused largely on Kya, her self-reliance, and the bond she forges with the nature that surrounds her. But interspersed throughout this narrative are snippets of a future murder investigation, which leads readers into the events that transpire during the second half of the novel.

This combination of bildungsroman and courtroom thriller placed in an unconventional, natural setting has captivated audiences of all backgrounds. Publishing experts remain baffled by the book's sales, which hit 4.5 million copies in under a year and a half, (3) as well as its steadfast hold on the New York Times bestseller list still today--nearly four years after publication. (4) While accolades such as a spot on Barnes & Noble's Best Fiction Books of 2018 and a book club endorsement by Reese Witherspoon contributed to the novel's success, (5) critics suggest that "the story of a young woman wrestling with isolation and loneliness in lushly descriptive settings resonate beyond political boundaries and in defiance of falling sales of adult fiction." (6) Further, the dialogue surrounding Kya and her life in the marsh appears far from over, as a film adaptation is currently in the works. (7) Where the Crawdads Sings unifying effect has propelled it to a position of literary importance, and it has also created an audience for a literary voice not often, nor accurately, represented in popular culture: the voice of ruralism.

Depictions of ruralism in books, movies, and television frequently perpetuate stereotypes and create misunderstandings about the realities of rural life and law. For example, most characterizations of rural lawyers, like those in Where the Crawdads Sing, portray them as efficient and accessible. But in reality, studies show that the pool of attorneys serving rural communities is shrinking, (8) making it more difficult for rural dwellers to access legal services. The American Bar Association (ABA) describes rural residents as "disproportionately poor[] and ... forced to travel long distances to find lawyers to handle routine matters that affect their everyday lives, such as wills, divorces and minor criminal and civil cases." (9) The attorney shortage is due in part to social perceptions of rural lawyering, and this Book Notice evaluates the role that Where the Crawdads Sing plays in contributing to these and other rural stereotypes.

This Notice focuses on misconceptions about rural realities and how representations of ruralism in Where the Crawdads Sing either perpetuate or deviate from these misunderstandings. Part I provides an overview of the impression of ruralism that Where the Crawdads Sing creates. Part II discusses the current state of rural life and justice, highlighting issues of access to justice impression of ruralism that Where the Crawdads Sing creates. Part II discusses the current state of rural life and justice, highlighting issues of access to justice and other challenges caused by misconceptions about ruralism. Finally, Part III evaluates how Where the Crawdads Sing reflects or diverges from reality and considers the real-world implications of those representations.


    Where the Crawdads Sing tells the story of Kya, a young girl living in a marsh on the outskirts of a rural North Carolina village. (10) Abandoned by her family, Kya quickly adapts to her surroundings and learns to be self-sufficient in the marsh. Kya's isolation earns her the nickname "Marsh Girl" from the local villagers, most of whom discriminate against her on the few occasions she goes into town. The novel begins by depicting Kya's life in the marsh in the 1950s (pp. 5-8), but the narrative also hints at a murder investigation occurring several years in the future (p. 3). The novel then jumps to 1970 as Kya faces the rural justice system, standing trial for the murder of her abusive exlover, a local village boy named Chase. (11)

    This Part describes key passages that contribute most significantly to the perception of rural life and law that Where the Crawdads Sing creates. Section I.A focuses on the novel's depiction of Kya's rustic life. Section I.B then gives an overview of the novel's presentation of rural law through Kya's experience with the criminal justice system.

    1. Portrayal of Kya's Life in the Marsh

      By the time Kya turns ten, every member of her family has abandoned her in the marsh (pp. 73-74). But Kya successfully adapts, finding companionship among the oaks, birds, and swells of the sea. She lives by her own rules, working in tandem with nature to provide for herself; she goes fishing instead of attending school, trades her fresh catch for food and clothes from a local wharf owner, and lives on the land without owing rent to anyone. Every evening, Kya "slip[s] down to the marsh by candle or moon--her shadow wavering around on the glistening sand--and gatherfs] mussels deep in the night" (p. 76).

      The novel uses lush imagery to paint a portrait of Kya's fife in the marsh. The book's opening line introduces the marsh as "a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky" (p. 3). In describing Kya's life, it weaves in poetic descriptions of the natural world, such as "fingers of fog flirted with the waves" (p. 178) and "leaves rained and danced around them as silently as snow" (p. 125). The language conjures a vivid, idyllic image of the world in which Kya lives, and in doing so romanticizes her self-sufficient rural life. Kya rarely encounters any challenges as a result of her isolated lifestyle; rather, nature serves as Kya's steady and reliable friend, and in it she is truly free.

      At the same time, Kya's isolation and self-sufficiency in the marsh make her otherworldly and "wild" in the eyes of the villagers (p. 168). Chase compares Kya to animals, calling her a "she-fox," "marsh minx," and "lynx" (pp. 199, 264), and the novel itself also comments on marsh culture. The first chapter declares that " [j]ust like their 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" (p. 8). This description of "bootlegged laws" suggests that marsh dwellers, including Kya, live by uncouth rules that make their existence inapposite to mainstream society. Yet the passage also romanticizes this way of life, labeling it "ancient" and "natural," like something sacred, and draws a parallel to gentle animals such as doves. These juxtaposing concepts--romanticization of ruralism and a pejorative attitude toward rural life--resound throughout the book.

    2. Characterization of Rural Law and Justice

      Kya's freedom in the marsh starkly contrasts with her stifling experience in the village's criminal justice system. She becomes the prime--and only--suspect in Chase's murder investigation after his mother tells the police about her suspicions that Kya, "the Marsh Girl," killed her son (p. 226). The only evidence for her claim is that "Chase had broken off their relationship ... She couldn't have him, so maybe she killed him" (p. 172). One officer quickly notes that he "can see somebody from the marsh being involved in this thing. They got their own laws" (p. 173). The very fact that Kya is from the marsh, where the "law" does not align with forms of legal accountability in the village, bolsters suspicions against her despite her sound alibi. (12) And though the police acknowledge that her involvement in the murder "[s]eems a bit of a stretch" (p. 227), they proceed to arrest her.

      Kya is "the first female inmate--other than overnighters--in years" to be incarcerated in the village jail (p. 276). At night, she hears two men bantering about the "gossip they'd heard about Kya's case from their visitors. Especially her odds of getting the death penalty, which had not been issued in the county for twenty years, and never to a woman" (p. 277). Fortunately, Kya somehow secures the community's former hot-shot defense attorney, Tom Milton, as her pro bono counsel. (13)

      Kya's jury trial further illustrates the village community's parochial legal environment. Kya "recognized [most of the jurors] from the village.... Mrs. White, who had told her daughter that Kya was dirty, now sat on the jury" (p. 261). Not only did Kya know the jurors, but they knew her, as is inevitable in a small town with only so many people available for jury duty. Bias and animosity pervade Kya's every interaction with the jurors, witnesses, and even the judge. As Tom warns her, "[P]eople in this town are prejudiced, you have to be prepared that it won't be easy for us to win" (p. 287). To convict Kya, all the prosecutor needed was "some plausible concept the jurors could latch on to and pull them in" (p. 336). The attorneys' observations about the case suggest that small-town familiarity and prejudice could undermine the potential of reaching a just result, a notion that Tom embraces in his powerful closing statement.

      Tom's closing statement acknowledges the community's discrimination against Kya, "the Marsh Girl," for which he condemns the villagers (p. 340). He reminds them that Kya was

      only an abandoned child, a little girl surviving on her own in a swamp, hungry and cold, but we didn't help her.... Instead we labeled and rejected her .... If we had fed, clothed, and loved her, ... we wouldn't be prejudiced against her. And I believe she would...

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