Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens raises several great questions, but also has major flaws. In lyrical language, the child Kya’s relationship with the natural world conveys a sense of wonder and appreciation of life. This is the best part of the book, showing how we are renewed and supported by our natural environment. However, this story is set against a gloomy plot. Some of the main characters are vibrant, but others are hollow and vague.
Two books are being written. One is the story of a child growing up despite a minimum of parenting but with the comfort and lessons of the natural world, who suffers abuse but finds help from other outcasts and compassionate people. The other story is a crass justification for people behaving badly. Love and death are reduced to a non-human level of understanding. People who have good character are sent into the background.
The book tries to have it both ways: that the child Kya matured and excelled intellectually because of a few relationships with other people and with nature, but also never really developed emotionally, morally and ethically for the same reasons. This doesn’t make sense. Kya is shown examples of morality and ethics in her relationships with those few who did help her. There are lessons in compassion and non-violent resilience in the marsh life as well as the cruel ones. She has the ability to read and write. She does reflect, which is essential to making moral and ethical decisions. She relies on certain people, knows they care for her and will accept her gifts.
Do repeated hardships keep her from maturing as a human being, or does she choose which examples and lessons to follow? Either way, she has a thin excuse for the actions she takes with the man who loves her and the man who threatens her. In this view, Kya only understands human behavior well enough to mimic it, and only understands the natural world well enough to mimic it. But that is not the dreaming, loving, artistic and forgiving person who appears in some parts of the book. So which is it?
After the story shows growth from experience and reflection, it reverts to an old paradigm of past mythology (the tragic flaw in the hero) and psychology (irremediable damage from childhood trauma), rather than moving forward into greater understanding, that is, toward an advance in humanity. That would truly be going far beyond—where the crawdads sing.