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Literature / Where the Crawdads Sing

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Where the Crawdads Sing is a 2018 novel by Delia Owens.

In The '50s, Kya Clark is a young girl living in a shack in the marsh near the small town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina. As her family abandons her one by one, she learns to survive on her own.

As a teenager, she falls in love with Tate Walker, a boy a few years older than herself, who teaches her to read.

On October 30, 1969, Chase Andrews, the son of the wealthiest family in town, is found dead by the water tower, and Sheriff Ed Jackson suspects murder. The prime suspect is Kya, aka "Marsh Girl," who is now a young woman.

A film adaptation was released on July 22, 2022, directed by Olivia Newman with Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya and Taylor John Smith as Tate. Reese Witherspoon, who included the original book as part of her Reese's Book Club, is a producer under her Hello Sunshine label.

Where the Crawdads Sing contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Kya's Pa beats and berates his wife and children for even daring to have fun. He is the main reason the entire rest of the family ends up leaving. He eventually abandons ten-year-old Kya one day.
  • Absence of Evidence: The first thing Jackson notices about the scene of Chase's death is that there are no footprints in the muck near him or the water tower ladder, leading him to think they were destroyed.
  • Adoring the Pests: Kya's family used to have a wild skunk hiding below the planks of the hut. Pa wanted to chase it away, but Jodie begged him not to, as he had gotten used to it, and a new one would come anyway that they wouldn't know.
  • Adults Are Useless: Jumpin' and Mabel provide Kya intermittent support (unreliable, Jumpin' only buys seafood from her if he happens not to have bought from other suppliers and Mabel getting Kya a bra is treated as a big deal) but otherwise Kya gets no adult support at all once her Abusive Parents leave - unless you count Tate as adult support, once he turns 18 and begins a romantic relationship with her.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Tate starts a romantic relationship with Kya when he is 18 and she is 14, but the experience gap between them is a much wider chasm - he teaches her to read and write, mathematics, teaches her manners, explains her first menstrual cycle to her. She is dependent on him as the only substantial positive influence in her life.
  • Agony of the Feet: Seven-year-old Kya jumps out of her brothers' tree house and lands on a rusty nail sticking out of a plank. She's heard of lockjaw but doesn't know where she could get a shot, so instead she soaks her foot in saltwater and mud for a few days while exercising her jaw, and is lucky enough not to get sick.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: From childhood on, Kya is ridiculed and insulted, but also feared by almost everyone around town, simply because she lived so differently.
  • Alliterative Name: Catherine "Kya" Clark.
  • Animal Lover: Kya loves all the animals in the swamp and likes to watch them. Her favorite animals are the gulls, who she considers her only friends and recites poems to them.
  • Attempted Rape: Two months before Chase's death, he comes back to Kya's cabin to persuade her to be The Mistress. When Kya refuses, he punches her in the face and tries to rape her. She escapes with a Groin Attack. Two fishermen witness her beating him, screaming death threats, and then fleeing in her boat, and testify about it at the trial.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Various factors hint towards Chase having been murdered by Tate. This is seemingly confirmed when the sheriff appears to take the character away after Kya's acquittal, and the next chapter even opens in a graveyard, implying the death penalty was served. He's actually innocent: The sheriff was merely informing him of his father's death.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Chase seems to be a nice guy, if not as much as Tate, but it turns out that he's been cheating on his girlfriend with Kya the entire time they were together. Even then, he still seems genuinely remorseful for hurting her, only to slap her when she rejects him, try to rape her and trash her place, making her so afraid that she decides to kill him to stop the threat.
  • Break-In Threat: Kya returns home after hiding out in the woods to avoid Chase after he assaulted her to find her house in shambles. This is the moment that makes her realize that she's in genuine danger and that he will likely return to finish the job.
  • Break the Haughty: Chase's mother, Patti Love, who despises Kya as "trash" and is the most vocal in insisting she be found guilty and executed. Not only is Kya acquitted, but the trial reveals to her - not to mention the entire town - that the golden child they idolized was actually a sleazy, unfaithful rapist.
  • Break-Up Bonfire: After everyone except Kya and Pa leaves, Pa throws Ma's books, paintings, dresses, and radio into a bonfire. Kya rushes to stop him and manages to save some of her things.
  • Cassandra Truth: Kya DID murder Chase, who was far from the nice guy he seemed to be, because she was scared he'd kill her.
  • Chekhov's Gun: On their first date, Chase takes Kya to the water tower and can be seen closing an opening in the grate, the very grate he would fatally fall through. Kya's lawyer points out that Chase's death could easily have been an accidental fall rather than a murder.
  • Clothing-Concealed Injury: The day Ma leaves, she ties a white scarf across her forehead, but the edges of a bruise are still visible.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The fact that Chase consistently wears black shirts is a huge hint that he isn't the nice guy he seems to be.
  • Cool Big Sis: Some of Kya's older siblings count, although it's downplayed by how they leave her behind when they run away from home.
    • Jodie spends a lot of time with Kya, they confide in each other, and he reconnects with her as an adult and is there for her during her trial.
    • In the film, Mandy and Missy are seen playfully rocking around in a boat with Kya, and have a close enough bond with each other to leave home together, rather than separately.
  • Cut Himself Shaving:
    • Kya tells Tate that her bruise from being punched by Chase is from running into a door in the middle of the night. He doesn't buy it for a second. She tries the same on Jumpin' but he doesn't even let her finish before asking who hit her.
    • She tells her lawyer, Tom Milton, that the scratches she made on her arm are from mosquito bites.
  • Dies Wide Open: Chase is found with his eyes and mouth open.
  • Distant Finale: The book ends in 2009, with 64-year-old Kya dying of a heart attack in her boat. The whole town attends her funeral, even though she never visited the town again after her trial. Looking through her shack after her death, Tate finds Chase's shell necklace and a poem Kya wrote strongly implying that she did, in fact, kill him.
  • Domestic Abuse: Pa used to get drunk and beat Ma and all the kids. After everyone else leaves, Kya learns how to stay out of his way so he won't beat her.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: Kya remembers Pa whipping her with a belt for trying to stop him from beating Ma.
  • Eating Lunch Alone: During her first and only day of school, Kya sits at an empty table to eat lunch.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: At the end of the novel, Kya and Tate live together happily ever after, spending almost forty years full of joy in their swamp. By then, Tate had abandoned Kya, who had already grown up without family or friends, for five years without notice. Then, Kya was almost raped, murdered her predator and went through a months-long trial with the likely scenario of the death penalty.
  • First Day of School Episode: Kya is forced to go to school once, where they put her in 2nd grade directly. She faces so much bullying of teachers and classmates alike, that after this single day she never returns to school.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Kya observes how female fireflies will sometimes switch their signal to attract a male of another species, only to lure him in and kill him. She also observes a praying mantis devouring her mate during coitus and approvingly notes that such insects "know how to deal with their lovers". The ending of the book reveals she indeed killed Chase, by luring him to the water tower, likely by promising him sex, and then killed him. The name of the poem where she confesses this is even titled "Firefly".
    • In an early scene while walking with Tate, she covers their footprints so that CPS can't find her. When Chase's body is found with no footprints nearby, the deputy deduces that they were destroyed by the perpetrator. This is the first hint that Kya's guilty after all.
    • On their first date, Chase takes Kya to the water tower and can be seen closing an opening in the grate, the very grate he would fatally fall through. Kya's lawyer points out that Chase's death could easily have been an accidental fall rather than a murder.
    • Early on, when offering to be Kya's lawyer, Milton suggests she take a plea deal for manslaughter and get ten years. Kya refuses outright. Then, when it looks like Kya might be found guilty, Milton recommends she take the stand and tell her story. Kya again refuses, apparently out of pride; she doesn't want to beg the townspeople for her life. In reality, she's refusing the deal (in which she would be required to allocute), then refusing to take the stand because she'd have to either confess to first-degree murder or lie under oath.
  • Forgotten Birthday: When Tate gets Kya a cake for her fifteenth birthday, Kya is "flabbergasted" because nobody has ever given her a birthday cake or wrapped her birthday presents before, and nobody has even wished her a happy birthday since her mother left her.
  • Friendless Background: Tate is Kya's Only Friend.
  • Groin Attack: When Chase tries to rape Kya, she defends herself by kicking him in the groin.
  • Honey Trap: Kya watches female fireflies flash their mating signal. One of them suddenly switches to the signal of another species; when a male of that species flies over to mate with her, she grabs and eats him. Likewise, she observes a female praying mantis who allows a male to mount her before devouring him mid-coitus. Kya seems to take a note out of their book in dealing with Chase afterwards.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Chase's mother, Patti Love, thinks Kya killed Chase because she was jealous of his wife Pearl.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: We're clearly supposed to hate the police, prosecutor, and Chase's family for going after Kya for Chase's murder, until it turns out that she did it after all. They are however, wrong about the reason —she didn't do it because he dumped her, she did it because she was terrified of him.
  • Let's Wait a While: Tate refuses to have sex with Kya because he's legal and she isn't, and because he's afraid moving too quickly will damage her. Later, Kya delays sex with Chase Andrews for a long time, because she'd feel cheap if she had sex too soon after getting to know him.
  • Loners Are Freaks: With few exceptions, the entire town is all too eager to attribute everything bad to Kya, simply because she's living alone. When the popular Chase dies violently in the swamp, they all jump to the conclusion that she must be the murderer, without much proof to back it up.
  • Lousy Lovers Are Losers: Kya is clearly surprised and disappointed at how uncomfortable and painful her first time with Chase is (though this isn't uncommon even under the best of circumstances). He assures her it will get better - but it never gets much better. It turns out he's been cheating on his girlfriend with her and tries to rape her when she confronts him.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The crime scene is set up to look like Chase accidentally fell through a grate in the water tower.
  • Minor Living Alone: Without Pa's disability checks to support her, Kya gathers mussels and catches fish and sells them to Jumpin', who runs the gas station. She uses the money to buy food and kerosene, and mostly wears hand-me-downs from her vanished siblings. She pretends Pa still lives with her so the authorities won't take her away.
  • Miranda Rights: Deputy Joe Purdue Mirandizes Kya as he arrests her for Chase's murder. She tunes out after "You have the right to remain silent..."
    She didn't hear the rest of it. No one hears the rest of it.
  • Moment of Weakness: While Pa was fighting in France, his sergeant was shot and fell twenty feet from the foxhole. Everyone scrambled to rescue him except Pa, who was too scared to move. Then a mortar exploded outside the hole, shattering his left femur. It was assumed that he was hit while trying to rescue the sergeant, so he was awarded a medal and a medical discharge. Only he knew the truth. Full of shame, Pa descended into alcoholism and gave up on providing a better life for his family.
  • Nature Hero: Kya lacks social skills to connect with humans, but she is excellent with animals, and she acquires an excellent knowledge of the marsh and its flora and fauna.
  • Never Learned to Read: Kya attends exactly one day of school when she's seven. As a result, up until Tate starts giving her lessons, she can't read any words except her name.
  • Not Good with Rejection: Chase responds to Kya's righteous anger over him being engaged and her rebuffing his attempts at apologizing by hitting her, trying to rape her, and breaking into her house to trash it.
    • After having been abandoned by every single one of her loved ones as a child, Kya has her own issues with being left by someone she trusted. Her reactions tend towards self-destructive breakdowns of depression or rage.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • Kya's real name is Catherine, but she goes by a childhood mispronunciation.
    • After her siblings leave, she can only remember their nicknames. As a teenager, she learns their real names from the family Bible: Missy is Mary Helen, Murph is Napier Murphy, Mandy is Amanda Margaret, and Jodie is Jeremy Andrew.
  • Parental Abandonment: Kya's mom leaves when she's six, followed by her teenage siblings. For the next few years, her pa is distant and neglectful, sometimes leaving for days at a time, and he abandons her for good when she's ten.
  • Parental Substitute: Jumpin' and his wife are the closest Kya gets to caring, loving parents. For years they supply her with clothes, food, and advice.
  • Penultimate Outburst: The defense exposes arguments about how the town's people are judging the so-called Marsh Girl so harshly because of their own prejudice —they perceive her as a weirdo and not really part of their community, not to mention an unhealthy dose of sexism. This leads to increasing outrage among the aforementioned people, who made a ruckus before when Kya is brought by the police officers. When they start yelling insults, the judge gets fed up and threatens of kicking out everyone but the defense attorney, the accused, and the prosecutor.
  • Pet the Dog: For a while, Pa acts decently to Kya, teaching her how to fish, telling her a bit about the family history, giving her things for her marsh collection, and treating her to meals at restaurants. However, receiving a letter from Ma saying she wants the kids back to live with her side of the family brings all of that to end and he abandons her shortly afterwards.
  • Pygmalion Plot: Tate finds Kya as a completely unschooled girl and teaches her to read and write, teaches her grammar and manners, teaches her about her body's growth into womanhood, gives her the textbooks that will shape her into her future self, and falls in love with his creation, eventually marrying her.
  • Rape and Revenge: Kya is the murderer, having killed Chase in revenge for attempting to rape her (and fear he will try again).
  • Red Herring: Literally when we see that the red hat in Kya's house belonged to Tate. The next scene is of her lawyer asking if she knew if anyone else had motive to kill Chase, to which she fervently shakes her head. So Tate must be the killer then! No, it's KYA. And judging from the elderly Tate's reaction when he finds the necklace she gave Chase among Kya's things, he genuinely didn't know.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: If you accept the cops' theory of the crime and believe that the absence of fingerprints on the abandoned fire tower as proof that the killer made the effort to wipe down the entire fire tower in the middle of the night to dispose of all fingerprints (rather than believing you shouldn't expect fingerprints to even be left under those circumstances in the first place) then the killer clued the cops in to what was going on by destroying evidence (without which distinguishing murder from accidental death would have been impossible).
  • Raised by Dudes: Kya is raised by her abusive father and then, eventually, by her friend and future husband Tate, and never learns how to fit in to conventional society.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Everyone assumes Kya killed Chase out of revenge for him dumping her. She did, but because he tried to rape her and was legitimately terrified that he was going to try to finish the job and kill her.
  • Second Love: Subverted. Chase seems to be this to Kya after Tate disappears, but he turns out to have been cheating on his actual girlfriend/fiancée with her and tries to rape her when she rebuffs him after finding this out.
  • Self-Harm: In the county jail, Kya plucks her hair and scratches her arms hard enough to leave marks.
  • Self-Made Woman: After Tate teaches Kya to read, she becomes a voracious reader of biology textbooks, not caring that they're too advanced for her. Her reading combined with her careful observation of the marsh wildlife makes her more educated than most of the townspeople by her early twenties, even though most of them see her as a dumb feral woman. On Tate's advice, she submits her work to a publisher, which compiles it into the most detailed guidebooks of East Coast shells and seabirds that currently exist. The royalty checks allow her to live comfortably and pay off back taxes so the land won't be developed.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Kya's Pa. The horrors of war - and, in particular, self-loathing over a private moment of cowardice - are the ultimate source of his rampant alcoholism. Jodie, who fought in the Vietnam War, grants that he can completely understand a man turning to alcohol to cope (though taking it out on ones family is still inexcusable).
  • Single Tear: Mrs. Culpepper, the truant officer, sheds one when Kya is found innocent.
  • Sleepy Depressive: After Tate stops seeing her, Kya doesn't get out of bed for three days.
  • Swamps Are Evil: Played with. All the people in Barkley Cove think of the Marsh as something mysterious and dangerous, so a girl surviving out there alone needs to do unspeakable things for it. Therefore, many people fear Kya as much as the Marsh itself. The novel also seems to differentiate between the Marsh - a place full of life, beauty, vibrance, etc. - and the Swamp - dark, treacherous, messy, etc. - as the novel's two parts are titled after and reflect these attributes.
  • Tears of Joy: Kya cries as she feeds the gulls for the first time in two months after being released from jail.
  • Their First Time: Kya has hers with Chase in a cheap motel during a road trip to Asheville. She finds the experience to be painful and unpleasant, even though she genuinely wanted it.
  • Title Drop: When Kya tells Tate that someone from social services came by looking for her he suggests he and Kya should meet in future "where the crawdads sing ... far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters."
  • Tragic Keepsake: Chase continues wearing the shell necklace Kya made for him, implying that despite everything, he did have strong feelings for her and decades later, a now-elderly Tate finds it among her things, revealing that she DID kill him after all.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: The poet Amanda Hamilton, whose work Kya often quotes, is actually Kya herself, publishing her work under a pseudonym in the local paper.
  • The Unfettered: Kya's instinct to survive against what the world throws at her is quite herculean. Nothing will stop her finding safety, including luring Chase (after his Attempted Rape of her) onto the water tower to ensure his cessation of existence.
  • The Unreveal: Whatever happened to Kya's Pa. His returns to their shack become gradually less frequent, suggesting he's actively losing interest in being around, while upon his ultimate disappearance Kya speculates he met with some drunken accident or a fatal barfight. We'll never know.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: Even though Chase was married, he was extremely promiscuous with both single and married women. Purdue wonders if he was killed by one of the many husbands he cuckolded.
  • Woman Scorned: Played for drama. When Tate leaves Kya without telling a word, she succumbs to total isolation, swearing to never trust anyone ever again. This leads to disastrous consequences: when she is beaten and almost raped by Chase, she doesn't seek help from her friends or her brother Jodie, but instead opts to take things in her own hand and murders Chase.

Alternative Title(s): Where The Crawdads Sing