Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Where the Crawdads Sing: a very short review

I won't be the first to tell you anything about Delia Owens's Where the Crawdads Sing. According to the latest reports, I won't even be among the first five million people to tell you about it; it's surely the publishing success story of the decade!

I've heard that Where the Crawdads Sing is regularly assigned as high school reading material, which makes a certain amount of sense to me, because there is so much to talk about.

Depending on where you sit, and what sort of mood you are in, Where the Crawdads Sing is many different sorts of books. It's:

  1. an adventure story
  2. a memoir of growing up in rural coastal North Carolina in the 1950's and 1960's.
  3. a love story.
  4. actually several different love stories, of different types
  5. a murder mystery
  6. a harrowing account of family dysfunction amidst the evils of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, misogyny, alcoholism, and child abuse
  7. a police procedural
  8. a courtroom drama
  9. a devastating tale of sexual assault and its aftermath
  10. a meditation on race relations
  11. a thoughtful and elegant love song to the natural beauties of the wetlands
  12. a hopeful tale of determination and grit

It's not all these things all at once, of course. Owens adopts the approach of structuring the book as a series of short (sometimes very short) chapters, switching themes, styles, and approaches from one topic to another as the need arises.

It's like reading Mark Twain, then William Faulkner, then John Grisham, then Zora Neale Hurston, then James Lee Burke, then Harper Lee, and so forth, bouncing around and back and here and there (and then, through multiple timelines) as we go.

It's nowhere near as chaotic as I make it sound; Owens is graceful and adept and it rarely feels forced or artifical.

She's not perfect, of course, and she handles some topics better than others, but nearly everyone will find something in Where the Crawdads Sing that speaks directly to them, while simultaneously finding very little to be boring or uninteresting. Even if you're in a stretch where your interest is flagging, it's only a page or two before you're on to something quite new and different!

For myself, I found the most lovely parts to be where Owens temporarily takes a back seat and lets the marsh do the talking. Unsurprisingly from an author who directly quotes Aldo Leopold ("There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot."), Owens has a true conservationist's deep respect for the beauty, power, and honesty of the natural world.

Listen here, as the marsh itself becomes an active character, interacting with the human denizens as it would any other:

Sand keeps secrets better than mud. The sheriff parked his rig at the beginning of the fire tower lane so they wouldn't drive over any evidence of someone driving the night of the alleged murder. But as they walked along the track, looking for vehicle treads other than their own, sand grains shifted into formless dimples with every step.

Then, at the mud holes and swampy areas near the tower, a profusion of detailed stories revealed themselves: a raccoon with her four young had trailed in and out of the muck; a snail had woven a lacy pattern interrupted by the arrival of a bear; and a small turtle had lain in the cool mud, its belly forming a smooth shallow bowl.

If Where the Crawdads Sing could be summarized in any single phrase, it would be "a profusion of detailed stories revealed themselves". There's so much going on, but underneath it all the marsh ties it all together.

Here, listen to how Owens uses the simple technique of bookending a passage with several alliterative 'S' words to beautifully draw a line between cultural and religous influences ("Spanish moss", "cavelike sanctuaries") to their physical location ("sea and sky" and "serious ground"), showing how, in the end, it's all of a piece ("Markers of death ... elements of life"):

The Barkley Cove graveyard trailed off under tunnels of dark oaks. Spanish moss hung in long curtains, creating cavelike sanctuaries for old tombstones -- the remains of a family here, a loner there, in no order at all. Fingers of gnarled roots had torn and twisted gravestones into hunched and nameless forms. Markers of death all weathered into nubbins by elements of life. In the distance, the sea and sky sang too bright for this serious ground.

After roaring off to an amazing first two years of success, will Where the Crawdads Sing still be on everyone's thoughts twenty years from now? I'm not sure. Perhaps this is this generation's Huckleberry Finn, but it may also be just too soon to tell.

Regardless of its eventual state in the canon, I didn't regret a minute I spent with Owens's spell-binding saga.

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