I have very strong feelings regarding Southern fiction. I love Louisiana and the entirety of the American South. In my opinion, there’s something magical and incredibly atmospheric about the South. However, I also see the failings of the area, the poverty and lack of education and propensity to hate whatever is different. It’s the kind of place where people will bend over backwards to help a person in need, but only if said person is an accepted part of the community. People who are different are often met with ignorance, distrust, and judgment, and that’s if people decide to notice you at all. Southerners are old pros at pretending a problem doesn’t exist if they can just ignore it hard enough. Thankfully, my community has grown past this, and it far more accepting of those of different religions and ethnicities and sexualities than we were even a decade ago. Even here in the South, things can change.
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.”
The reason I feel so strongly about Southern literature is that authors so often choose only one of these sides to represent. Either they gloss over the problems of the South and focus on the charm, or they harp on our failings without ever recognizing our strengths. While Southern Lit is something I thirst for, I have put down books in frustration more times than I can count because we so often come across as two-dimensional. But when I find good Southern Lit, I rejoice. There was much rejoicing in the land when I picked up Where the Crawdads Sing. There might be hundreds upon hundreds of miles between Louisiana and North Carolina, but Delia Owens made me feel right at home, like I was seeing the place I love most in the world decades in the past. The beauty of the South mingled on the page with combination of small-minded judgment and overwhelming kindness that defines us. Owens was never preachy about the South’s shortcomings, but she laid them bare for the world to see. And she did so in such an honest, balanced way that I don’t think anyone can refute her portrayal.
“I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”
Kya Clark has been left all her life. First, her mother walks out, leaving Kya and her siblings to survive their harsh life in the marsh and find a way to live with their drunken, abusive father. Gradually, Kya’s siblings leave as well, and she’s alone with her father. Not long after, said drunken father doesn’t come home one night and Kya finds herself alone in their little marsh shack. No one ever comes back. Kya is ten years old. Raised to fear and distrust those in positions of authority, Kya stays one step ahead to the social workers who want to take Kya in and find her a family. Nothing would hurt Kya more than being forced to leave the marsh. Because the marsh has always been there for her. When everyone in her life left her, the marsh was steady and reliable and constant. Kya loves the marsh with her entire being, and becomes known simply as the Marsh-Girl by the community at large. She has never attended school, but she knows more about the marsh than probably anyone alive, and believes that she is the only person that truly loves it. That is, until she one of her brothers’ friends makes a reappearance in her life. Tate is kind and compassionate and the only person in the world who sees how special and bright the Marsh-Girl is. He changes Kya’s life in so many ways. But has she been alone for too long? How does long term isolation and loneliness intrinsically alter a person’s character?
“Why should the injured, the still bleeding, bear the onus of forgiveness?”
I was blown away by Kya. Out of all the orphans in literature, she’s the one I yearned to pluck from her book and adopt the most. Owens did a marvelous job crafting this little girl who raises herself in the wild. I’ve always loved stories of man versus nature. Stories like Hatchet and Julie of the Wolves, My Side of the Mountain and Island of the Blue Dolphins were staples of my childhood, and they’re books I still revisit as an adult. But Kya never warred against nature; she embraced it and adored it and became one with her marsh in ways that I think very few people could. I’ve lived my entire life in the midst of nature and, though I love it and wouldn’t trade my life and my home for anything, I’ve never become part of my surroundings like that. But it’s a concept that really appeals to me. If only there weren’t mosquitos and water moccasins and leaches in the swamp behind my house…
“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.”
While Kya’s character and the marsh itself were by far my two favorite elements of this book, Owens also incorporated a compelling and multifaceted mystery into the narrative. It was never predictable. I had no idea how things would turn out in the end. Which is just another reason that I absolutely adored this book. Kya’s story is sad and beautiful and inspiring, and I can already tell that this is a book that I’ll be mulling over for years to come and revisiting often. Whether you’re from the American South or from a world away, I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and meet Kya. She’ll immediately win you over.
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