What’s it all about?
Told in two parts, The Marsh and The Swamp, this novel follows the story of Catherine Danielle Clark, nicknamed Kya. At just six years old (in 1952), she sees her mother abandon her and her family. Hopelessly, she waits for her mother to return, but realizes she’s never coming back. One by one, she also sees her older siblings, Missy, Murph, Mandy and Jodie all leave home too because of their father’s drinking and physical abuse.
“If anyone would understand loneliness, the moon would.”
Being the only child left at home, her father briefly gives up drinking and instead turns his attention to bonding with his youngest daughter. He teaches her how to fish and gives her a collection of shells and feathers. Whilst she cannot read or write, she can paint and she enjoys painting the landscapes, birds and coastlines immensely.
“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.”
One day, she stumbles upon a letter in their mailbox written by her mother. She leaves it on the table for her father to find but when he reads it he is infuriated and burns it immediately. While the fire is going, he also burns her clothes and canvases too. Her father quickly spirals back into alcoholism and also takes long trips out for gambling. One evening, he fails to return home at all, leaving her completely alone and isolated on the marsh. Kya has to learn self-resilience quickly in order to survive on her own. She learns gardening and trading in fresh mussels and smoked fish for money for gas from Jumpin’. Jumpin’, who runs the local gasoline station and ‘five and dime store’, quickly befriends Kya, with Mabel helping to collect clothing donations for her.
Kya faced many prejudices from the people of Barkley Cove throughout her early life. Calling her the ‘Marsh Girl,’ she was laughed at by schoolchildren, called nasty and filthy by the pastor’s wife. The one person who does become friendly with her is Tate Walker. As an old friend of Jodie, he is arguably one of the few nicest people to her. When she gets lost one day, it is Tate who leads her home in his boat.
Time progresses and he starts to leave her feathers from rare birds because he knows she will like them and teacher her how to read and write. The intimacy between the two increases and they have a relationship until Tate leaves for college. He promises to return, yet realises Kya cannot possibly live in this more civilized world because of her wildness and independence. He leaves without saying goodbye, leaving Kya // and //.
Part Two begins with Kya in 1965 when she is 19. Chase Andrews (their star quarterback and playboy) invited her to a picnic where he tries to have sex with her. He later apologizes and the two embark on a relationship together. He takes her to the abandoned fire tower and she gives him a gift of a shell necklace. She doesn’t trust him entirely, although she wants to, but she has doubts. However, she believes that he will marry her so the two consummate their relationship. Unfortunately, whilst shopping for groceries she stumbles across a newspaper where she sees that he is already engaged to another woman. She ends the relationship, leaving her a tarnished woman.
“Female fireflies draw in strange males with dishonest signals and eat them; mantis females devour their own mates. Female insects, Kya thought, know how to deal with their lovers.”
Meanwhile, Tate returns from college having since graduated and apologizes relentless for leaving her. He confesses his love for her but Kya, still hurting from his actions and her previous revelation, rejects him. What she does do, however, is allowed him inside her shack and he is impressed by her collected, now much expanded, of seashells.
He persuades her to publish a reference book on seashells. At the age of 22, she achieves this and publishes her own book on seashells and then in seabirds. Following the success of this and the royalties she hires someone to install running water, a water heater, tub, sink, flushing toilets and kitchen cabinets. She also orders soft furnishings to make her place more homely.
Jodie also returns expressing regret that he too, left her. He also tells her that their mother suffered from mental illness and died two years ago from leukemia.
“Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”
Chase also makes an appearance but ends up as an argument where Kya is attacked. He beats her and attempts to rape her. Kya manages to defend herself and manages to escape. Two men witness the attack too… Kya knows that reporting will be futile because everyone will naturally blame her. She decides to leave it.
Kya has the opportunity to meet her publisher in Greenville and gracefully accepts. Whilst she’s away, Chase is found dead beneath the fire tower. The sheriff, Ed Jackson, believes it to be a murder on the basis of having no tracks or fingerprints. To make matters more complicated, the statements he receives are all conflicting too. One thing he does learn is that the shell necklace he was wearing the night before was no longer on his body. Evidence does seem to pin Kya there but is it to be believed?
There’s a trial. There’s a verdict. Lives continue to be lived. By the end of the novel, Kya is with Tate in a loving relationship knowing that they were the ones for each other. Kya passes away at 64 in her boat leaving behind a wealth of secrets and stories.
“Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive…”
I loved this book so, so much. Although it did have a slower start, I was drawn in with the story line from the very beginning. This is a book I’ll be recommending to friends and family as well. It absolutely deserves the accolades it received and is a stunning read.