HAVING GROWN UP IN MISSISSIPPI, I have a weakness for Southern fiction. My curiosity was especially piqued by a friend’s gift and this Southern claim. I do confess to admiring many of John Grisham’s novels, particularly Sycamore Row, but I I rarely read a bestseller unless a better-read friend attempts it first. I shun New York Times’ bestseller lists simply because they are popular. Forget the press and the hubbub.
Case in point. I made the mistake of reading Gone Girl a few years ago and have always regretted the hours I lost. I found I intensely dislike amoral stories without one character to savor or cheer for. Thankfully Delia Owens’s Kya Clark is not that character, though she appears a pitiful orphan in every way. How forlorn to hear young Kya’s thoughts—“What she wondered was why no one took her with them.” Yet this read is more than character-driven.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens steeps her readers in a thoroughly engaging marshland setting. In fact, I would go so far as to compare her land to a living character much like Willa Cather does in her immigrant novels.
The land is ripe with paradox—safe yet dangerous, shining yet muddy, life amid decay.
Like Cather, Owens’s language fills us with every sensation and plants us firmly in Kya’s world of loss and hope. The land indeed nurtures her into and through her adult life with a “yearning to reach out yonder.” In her younger years, nature is a place of solace, a companion. But once her heart is awakened to human love and to the real relationship of years, creation cannot fill the void in the human heart—--
But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not a splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells.”
And there is a void. More than a century before, Cather writes of this too. Within O Pioneers!, the land is characterized more by its strength than by its vastness. Like a human personality, it can be overbearing or supportive. Alexandra Bergson understood this. She too was intimidated at first as “the land wanted to be left alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar kind of savage beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness,” but as decades passed, the land appears an empathic friend as it “responds in kind.” More than personified, the land becomes a rounded character in full relationship with man.
Like Alexandra Bergson, Kya possesses a faith in the land that others lack. The land is wholly human to her in relationship. And, if she has a faith, then it is no wonder that creation responds to her and reveals its treasures. It is there that she finds friendship with the marsh’s creatures, safety from prying eyes, relationship with her first love Tate, inspiration for the work of preserving nature in art.
More than eco-fiction, this novel doesn't preach of preserving the marshland, at least not overwhelmingly like a smarmy salesman. The story is one of relationship. Where the land could have been seen as a trap that limits, it is ultimately a place of rescue for Kya.
Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash