Reading Group Roundup: Where the Crawdads Sing

The report this month comes from Lancaster Farms where the group recently read Where the Crawdads Sing. Delia Owens’ novel is part murder mystery, part coming-of-age story and part celebration of a strange and haunting landscape.

The novel is set in the desolate marshlands of North Carolina in the American South from the 1950s to the 1970s, but its themes are relevant and urgent for the 21st century too: gender, racial and social injustice, the fragile complexities of nature.

The book was chosen by Reese Witherspoon for her Hello Sunshine Book Club in 2018 and it was adapted and released as a film earlier this year.

At the centre of the story is Kya Clark, a girl abandoned by her family and living in the wild. She is referred to by the local townspeople as ‘the Marsh Girl’ and treated as an outcast. When the golden boy of the town is found dead in the muddy marsh, Kya becomes the prime suspect in his murder case. For 25 years the rumour mill keeps churning and the reader keeps guessing until the extraordinary revelation of the ending.

The book was a great hit with the Lancaster Farms group, not least the way it combined the murder mystery element with wider themes.

‘Although a classic murder mystery at heart, it is more about the people than anything else. Discrimination in the book comes from a limited understanding of the world.’

‘There’s always a sense of tension whenever Kya comes into contact with people outside her swamps.’

Readers also connected with Kya despite all the differences of gender, age and culture.

‘I developed a lot of empathy for Kya because of how her life has been very solitary, and how she has had hurt and upset.’

‘I could empathise with her loneliness and alienation from ‘civilisation’, as well as her feelings of abandonment by her mother and father.’

And there was praise for other characters as well.

‘The male characters in the novel are complex and include the darker masculine archetypes: the unpredictable, abusive father and the predatory, grinning alpha male.’

The marsh and swamp landscape were unfamiliar to most of the group but many were drawn into its power.

‘Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests, Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night-crawlers are diurnal in this muddy lair. There are sounds of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.

            On the morning of October 30, 1969, the body of Chase Andrews lay in a swamp, which would have absorbed it silently, routinely. Hiding it for good. A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin. But this morning two boys from the village rode their bikes out to the old fire tower and, from the third switchback, spotted his denim jacket.’

‘Beautifully written, you can tell the author has an extensive knowledge of nature to draw on.’

‘I liked the book’s emphasis on the supremacy of nature, from the devouring marsh to the laws of the fireflies, which Kya ruthlessly performs on her former ‘flame’ before successfully evading the laws of man.’

Marketing choices around books are fascinating but publishers don’t always get it right for all readers. Several members commented on their initial resistance to the cover.

‘I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it as I didn’t expect it to be such a good read on first glance.’

‘I felt it was particularly aimed at a female audience (pink cover etc) but this was unfair as it could be enjoyed as much by men. The cover was off-putting to men.’

Perhaps we should let the publishers know in case they decide to reprint it?

All in all, Where the Crawdads Sing was much enjoyed and sparked great discussion.

‘My favourite so far – so good I had to read it twice!’

A note on the title

‘Crawdads’ is a Southern term for crayfish. Kya remembers that her mother used to encourage her to explore the marsh, to ‘go as far as you can – way out yonder where the crawdads sing’. Long after her mother leaves, Kya asks a friend what it means. He tells her ‘Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.’

If your prison doesn’t have a reading group, encourage your librarian to have a look  and email if they would like to receive updates and resources from us. PRG is part of Give a Book.

View all posts