There’s a line toward the end of “Where the Crawdads Sing” when author Delia Owens appears to send a little wink, a mini-apology, to her readers (a.k.a. devout fans who’ve bought more than 1.5 million copies and helped her debut novel climb the bestsellers list, where it’s lived for the past seven-plus months). I have no way of knowing if she meant it this way — “Dear reader, I’ve steered this exquisite tale into a bit of hackneyed territory, but a girl’s gotta score a movie deal” — but that’s how I took it. It comes during the murder trial of protagonist Kya, abandoned as a young girl by her entire family to raise herself in a shack in the depths of an isolated marsh, surrounded by nothing but the pulsing, eloquently rendered — thanks to Owens’s considerable gifts — natural world. Up until the court case gets going, the reader is immersed in the elements alongside Kya: We see a “silent cloud of dragonflies part,” feel the “sun, warm as a blanket,” then watch it set “under a paint-brushed sky,” notice the “slate-colored waves” of North Carolina’s coast, study a “ballet of fireflies,” feel the “breathing, wet earth,” watch egrets take flight, “a line of white flags against the mounting gray clouds,” hear the “cicadas squeal against a mean sun.”
We see Kya forage her surroundings to survive, paw through mud for mussels to sell to a local supplier, using the money to buy grits in town, barefoot in “too-short bib overalls.” To the townsfolk, Kya is “the Marsh Girl,” a poor, uneducated freak, willfully living alone in a remote shack; but to Owens, and to us, she’s a majestic creature in a majestic world. “Kya knew the time of the tides in her heart,” Owens writes, “could find her way home by the stars, knew every feather of an eagle.” When Kya discovers poetry — at the same time as her first pangs of romantic love, how apt indeed — it’s nearly too on the nose: Her whole existence is poetry, delicate and raw.
But then the trial starts. Kya’s been accused of murdering Chase Andrews, town rich kid and former high school quarterback, who’d pursued the Marsh Girl as a conquest but ended up falling for her (“You’re gorgeous, free, wild as a dang gale,” he tells her. “I wanted to get as close as I could”), meanwhile hiding the dalliance from his uppity family and multiple lovers. The courtroom scenes are a stark contrast of milieu — no more oak-lined lagoon channels to explore under the stars; now Kya’s world comprises a locked cell, a pro bono lawyer and a slick prosecutor with damning theories for days. And it’s here that Owens’s writing, like her protagonist, seems ripped from its comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong, Owens crafts a compelling court case, with twisty interrogations and loudly overruled objections, all the makings of good legal drama. But the richness of Kya’s inner life, so evocative in earlier chapters, seems absent in the courtroom. For such an astute observer of living things, having spent years mesmerized by the feathers of night herons and mating patterns of bullfrogs, there’s little observation of the fresh humanity around her.
Sure, there are a few Kya-esque animal-hierarchy analogies: the judge, Kya sees as “alpha male”; her lawyer, Tom, a “powerful buck”; the bailiff, the “lowest-ranking male [who] depended on his belt hung with glistening pistol . . . to bolster his position.” But missing are Kya’s musings during the case, her survey of the panel of jurors who hold her fate; her perception of the foreign, lawyerly language, having grown up outside any institutional walls; the tension between how an outsider might have imagined a courtroom trial and what it turns out to be. Instead, we see the scenes as we might in a film — dramatic, brisk, dialogue-centric, cleverly interspersed with flashbacks that reveal the stories behind the case’s physical evidence, but with all the pesky thoughts and feelings edited out. Kya is checked out during the trial, her eyes — and observations — withdrawn. And it’s here that Owens, as if to acquit herself, to apologize for having earlier gifted us with sprawling, richly metaphored writing that’s suddenly come to a halt, offers her meta-wink: “The language of the court was, of course, not as poetic as the language of the marsh.”
I actually laughed out loud when I read the line — almost as if it said, “I’m no John Grisham, but cut me some slack — up until now this book has been freaking gorgeous.” And that would be true! In any case, if the courtroom scenes aren’t as evocative and immersive as what came before, at least they’re compulsively readable, split into quick-cut interactions and capped by swelling closing arguments that scream out for life as a screenplay. No wonder Reese Witherspoon — who helped rocket Owens up the charts by selecting “Crawdads” as a Hello Sunshine book club pick and whose producer spidey sense can’t resist a twisted murder mystery (“Gone Girl,” “Big Little Lies”) or woman surviving the elements (“Wild”) — has snapped up the rights and will be producing the film. Owens, who lives in a remote, snow-covered corner of Idaho surrounded by wildlife and, as she’s said, “20 miles of back roads from the closest coffee shop,” has been charmingly, incredulously gracious about the whole Hollywood thing. But maybe it would be naive to think she hadn’t always had a movie-rights endgame in mind. Just as Chekhov famously instructed about dramatic intrigue — “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired” — Owens told BookPage that she majorly reworked the “Crawdads” structure to include “a bomb under the sofa that [signals that] something more happens in this book.” She explained that instead of devoting the first third to Kya’s pre-pubescent self-reliance in the wilderness, she started the novel with Chase Andrews’s dead body face up in the swamp. The perfect opening shot.
Owens has even crafted her own tagline for the film: “A nature-immersed mystery and love story with an ending that you’ll never guess, and never, ever forget.” And what a cinematic ending it is (spoiler alert): Decades after Kya’s acquitted and has lived happily as a successful nature writer in her shack alongside her first love, Tate, she dies — only for Tate to discover in the shack’s floorboards evidence that she’d indeed murdered Chase, likely just as the prosecution posited. The Keyser Söze moment. I admit, I didn’t see it coming; but just as I marveled at Keyser’s diabolical ease — how brazen to leave a trail of clues, to presume that even so, no one would best him in the end — I felt a satisfactory glee with Owens’s twist. The big screen will delight in this made-for-Hollywood moment even more. You can practically hear the haunting score, see the camera pan out off Tate’s stunned face and over Kya’s acres of marshland, the great keeper of secrets.
And yet, I can’t help but think that the most stunningly evocative aspects of this book, the solo dances between Kya and nature, will be the weakest the film has to offer: How do you capture soulfulness, convey stillness, without boring a modern audience to tears? Meanwhile, the least gorgeous parts, the paint-by-numbers court case and Kya’s fish-out-of-water trips to town, featuring cruel interactions and pointed 1960s racial tensions, will be heightened and exploited on-screen, mined for Oscar bait. At least I’ll be able to count myself among the haughty legions to parrot that timeworn phrase, “Yeah, but did you read the book? It’s so much better.”
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor living in New York.