Many bestselling American novels are comfortable reads. They offer central characters who are attractive and admirable. They provide a story that carries the reader along and leaves the reader with a good feeling at the end.
They don’t cause trouble. They aren’t out to challenge the reader with new ideas, except for perhaps providing some relatable insights into an obscure world or topic. They avoid ambiguity since it’s always unsettling to have to cope with the ambiguous.
Where the Crawdads Sing, the 2018 novel by Delia Owens that has sold more than four million copies, is a recent example.
Set in 1970 and earlier, it is the story of the ultimate outsider, a girl named Kya — Catherine Danielle Clark — growing up, totally isolated, in a marsh along the North Carolina shore. At the age of six, she is abandoned by her mother and then by her brother, the last of her four siblings, and, by the age of ten, is totally alone when her abusive father disappears.
Nonetheless, against all odds, she fends for herself, finds a way to get food and a way to make a tiny bit of money and becomes an expert on the birds, grasses and other natural elements of her world. She is portrayed as a triumphant creation of her own self.
All the while, the people of the nearby town of Barkley Cove treat her as a pariah, not just as swamp trash, their term for the poor people who live in the marsh, but as someone not-quite-human, the Marsh Girl, or Wolf Girl. She’s living a life that’s a great deal foreign to theirs, and that scares them.
Uriah Heep and Kya
Outcasts in literature can be very disturbing. Think of Uriah Heep, the cloying, insincere sycophant in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Other characters in the novel cringe at his touch, and the reader finds him distressing because he’s doing dastardly stuff that will mess up others’ lives.
Even so, he is such an over-the-top schemer that he’s fascinating for the reader. He is not a cardboard cut-out. Dickens sketches his character with psychological depth, making clear that Heep is not innately evil, that his lust for power and position are rooted in what life has dealt him.
Readers aren’t likely to be distressed by Kya. She is the outcast as hero. She’s plucky and game. She doesn’t complain.
Kya is a character that a reader relates to easily, even though she lives a life far different from the vast majority of those readers. That’s because everyone, at some point in life, at least, has felt like an outcast, has felt that the others just don’t understand. In this way, Kya is the reader, just better perhaps at coping with her outsider status.
Tate, Chase and Emma’s loves
Like the reader, Kya is looking for love. She has two boyfriends, Tate Walker and Chase Andrews. But, when it comes to love, both fall short.
Tate, who teaches her to read and loves learning the secrets of the marsh with her and is gentle and caring, fails to come back from college when he promised, and, feeling so ashamed to have failed her, he stays away for years. It breaks her heart.
Her flirtation with Chase doesn’t end well. And then it gets worse. And then even worse.
Although Tate failed her, he still loves her. He’s a good boyfriend. Chase, on the other hand, is the stereotypical high school quarterback, son of a rich businessman and arrogant ass. He is not only a bad boyfriend. He is bad, bad, bad. Indeed, his death, announced on the book’s first page, becomes more and more pleasurable for the reader to consider as the book goes on because it becomes clear that, well, he deserved it.
There’s no uncertainty here for the reader. Although imperfect, Tate is the one to cheer for. Chase is the one to sneer at.
That’s especially comforting since most of readers have had romantic relationships that were, at a minimum, confusing, a mix of good and bad and routine. A parallel in literature is Jane Austen’s Emma in which the title character is completely confused about who she loves — and so, for much of that novel, is the reader.
With Where the Crawdads Sing and Kya’s love life, readers don’t have to work hard to know what to feel.
Kya is designed in other ways to be an attractive hero and stand-in for the reader. There is a #MeToo aspect to the story of her young adulthood which, as the nation is learning, resonates with many female readers.
And, while she is rejected by the white townspeople, the African-Americans of the area, similar outcasts, treat her like a princess.
They also talk in dialect, unlike everyone else in the book. For instance, Kya’s friend/father figure Jumpin’ says in response to a question about visiting grandchildren, “Yessiree, got fou’ wif us right now.”
That’s a throwback to the cliché of the happy Mammy in Gone with the Wind and generations of other novels about slavery by white writers, a stereotype that is identified today as racist, especially when whites aren’t given the same treatment.
The most attractive thing about Kya, though, is that she is a superwoman.
She survives essentially alone from the age of six in an environment filled with threats and mysteries, a place where a small, lone child would be in constant danger of death from disease or drowning or a festering injury or a ravaging animal, a place where a small, lone child would be constantly lonely and at risk of debilitating depression or another crippling mental illness.
And she doesn’t just survive, she thrives.
Never schooled about words and reading, the 14-year-old Kya gobbles up the lessons she gets from Tate and is soon working through advance texts, including Einstein’s books.
And not only that, but she is a born naturalist who keeps voluminous and meticulous collections of feathers and other marsh articles, and a born artist who sketches and paints the animals and the plants she has come to know in this wetland.
And not only that, but, with a slight nudge from Tate, she is able to take her art and combine it with her knowledge and her writing to put together manuscripts for a constant stream of highly successful and profitable books about the marsh environment.
She is a paragon of success, a woman of superior knowledge and skills and craft.
And not only that, but, despite all her accomplishments, she is still unfairly seen as the half-human Marsh Girl who must undergo a trial for the murder of Chase Andrews.
In literature, such hugely successful people often have a fatal flaw, such as Achilles with his vulnerable heel in The Iliad and Othello with his rage in Shakespeare’s play and Samson with his love for Delilah in the Bible.
Kya has no fatal flaw.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is designed so that readers will fall in love with Kya, a hero of great stature who does everything right, even down to the surprises on the last two pages.
It is a bestseller. It is a comfortable read.
Patrick T. Reardon