What exactly is Delia Owens saying in her best-selling novel Where the Crawdads Sing? Perplexing events and characters in the story have caused readers to ask a lot of questions and have a lot of interpretations. Last November, I was fortunate to hear Owens speak in person about the novel, offering a few answers to all those questions.
Inspiration for the story, she explained, started when she was a child in the state of Georgia and her mother would send her out to explore the woods. As an adult, while she was exploring the much larger wilds of Africa, she realized how similar human behavior is to animal behavior. “We are both territorial,” she said. “Also, females will abandon their young in times of severe stress.”
But somewhere along the way, she went on to say, mankind added virtue to the equation. “We’ve done better, but every day we have to balance these ancient aggressive genes with our virtue.”
One of the strongest characteristics linking people and animals is their need for a tribe to support and protect them. Animals won’t allow an animal that’s different to join their tribe, and people often behave the same way. “I learned this in Africa and in a sorority,” Owens said with a smile. She also pointed out that when we discriminate, everybody loses, not just the person discriminated against.
One of the major issues Owens raises in Crawdads is what happens when a person (or an animal) loses her tribe. Kya, the protagonist in the novel, loses her tribe when her family abandons her at a very young age. When she turns to the neighboring fishing-village people for help, most of them ignore her, a response Owens said reminded her of ancient primate groups. Left alone, Kya learns to survive from nature. One of the survival techniques she learns is deception, especially as practiced by fireflies. “Nature has made an art form of deception,” Owens said. She also explained that “where the crawdads sing” is the place where wild animals behave as they always have.
In a tribute to nature, Owens wrote the marsh where Kya lives as a character. “We don’t treat Mother Nature like a mother,” she said. She didn’t want to write a book about conservation, but she couldn’t help letting some of her concern about the earth slip in.
Eventually, Kya learns to tackle anything except loneliness, and loneliness has a tragic effect on her. “I didn’t know how the story would end at first, and when I came up with that ending, I made the rest of the book lead to that,” Owens said. Clues to solving the mystery are hidden throughout the story, she added.
In a natural progression from her explorations of jungles and animals, Owens moved on in Crawdads to explore the raw core of human nature. One of the main themes of the novel is discovering “the strength to find your way from the darkness back into the light,” she said. It’s about “finding how strong you are inside.” But most of all, she hopes readers of Crawdads remember “how much we need our troops. We can be very strong on our own, but more than anything, we need family and friends.”