Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing ★★★½

I’m not exaggerating when I say that “Where the Crawdads Sing” got me back into reading. Prior to 2020, I hadn’t read more than half a dozen books front to back for pleasure in about half a decade. Four years of arduous academic texts in college had entirely sucked the fun out of it and I wasn’t sure whether I would ever get back to the love of my childhood, when my parents struggled to persuade me to put down whatever I currently had my head buried in. Before I get too flowery, I should say that “Where the Crawdads Sign” earned its special place in my heart largely coincidentally. I picked it up right around when the pandemic started, and it was becoming increasingly clear that we were headed towards dark times mostly spent indoors and away from family and friends. The marshes of the Carolinas became a sanctuary for a few days, and when I had finished it, I was enlivened and eager to move on to the next book on my list, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Water Dancer”. “Where the Crawdads Sign” isn’t exactly the next Great American Novel, but Delia Owens has a strong command of language that evokes colorful and mesmeric images of nature in your head. What makes her work stand out is the ability to transplant her readers into the woods and swamps that Kya calls home and whatever story she tells and characters we accompany almost take a backseat to the true protagonist of her tale. The outdoors. And I think that, in no small part, explains its almost unprecedented success.

That’s important to point out for people who don’t have a relationship with the book, because if you are unfamiliar with the material, you’ll probably leave the movie theatre underwhelmed. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is unlikely to blow anyone out of their seat, but in fairness to everyone involved, it’s a faithful and heartfelt adaptation. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie in theatres that was based on a book I’d read, with the exception of “Dune”, which I would have been first in line to see regardless of whether I had braved Frank Herbert’s sci-fi staple from the 60s beforehand. The most recent one that comes to mind is “The Goldfinch” and when I came out of that one, quite irate, I immediately had five or six thoughts about how that movie could have been drastically improved. Truth be told, I’m not sure what constructive criticism I can offer that would have made this significantly better. I think the film is fine but restricted by the very nature of its source material. As much as I liked the book at the time, it has its limitations, and they become much more apparent on the screen than on the page. Without Owen’s serene evocations of a landscape that seems to have sprung straight from a fairy tale, there isn’t nearly as much left to hold your attention. I’m not saying the film doesn’t look nice. On the contrary. But the marsh is no longer a product of our imagination, but a visualization in front of us, so the story needs to do more heavy lifting, and it’s not really up to the task.

The film starts off in 1969, with the discovery of the dead body of Chase Andrews, the best quarterback the town has ever had, underneath an observation tower in the swamps near Barkley Cove. Soon after, the police make an arrest, a young woman who has lived out in the wilderness by herself for decades and is known to the local populace as the Marsh Girl. Her life story is relayed in flashbacks, which fill in some of the blanks brought up during the trial by her lawyer Tom Milton, played by David Strathairn, whose eventual pitch to the jury is that everything they know about Kya is based on myth and prejudice. She grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father, all by herself after her mother and four siblings leave one after another. When her dad vanishes one day as well, she has to find a way to support herself and earns money by collecting mussels and selling them to local storeowner Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel. She also bonds with Tate Walker, who shares her love for plants and animals and teaches her how to read and write. It’s there that the film transitions from the fascinating biography of a self-sufficient girl making her own way apart from civilization, which I liked, to a Nicolas Sparks romance, which I decidedly didn’t nearly as much. The writing isn’t as nauseating as it might have been and much of Kya’s and Tate’s relationship revolves around a mutual passion for the magic of the world around them, the birds, the fish, and the fireflies. Unfortunately, Tate turns out to be a dick and straight up ghosts her, so she falls for Chase, played by Harris Dickinson, out of the trenches in Europe into the marshes of the Carolinas. Both deadly places as it turns out.

In the book, which is written in the third person but essentially conforms to Kya’s perspective on life, her involvement with local hotshot Chase is still odd, but again, we are seeing him through her eyes, so it doesn’t become clear as early just how much of an asshole he is. Here, he is bad news from the start and it’s never entirely clear why a young woman who has shied away from society for her entire life would fall for an ignorant frat bro, who doesn’t share her interests or appreciates her unique insights into the world. Daisy Edgar-Jones’s name is one people would do well to remember starting now. Just one or two more roles, maybe something a bit more high-profile with mass appeal, and she’ll be the next Carey Mulligan. I’m always wary when British actresses are cast in roles so specifically tied to the local culture somewhere in America, but she really was the perfect choice. Kya is both shy and assertive, a woman who feels confident when she is at home in the wild and loses all of her faith in herself when she is in town among other people. She is better friends with the birds she collects feathers of than the children her age who made fun of her and caused her to quit school after one single day there. Jones gets to the heart of that resolve. She was abandoned by everyone. Her mother, her siblings, her father, her best friend, and her boyfriend. But the marsh was always there and will be long after she is gone. There is comfort in that thought.

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