Book Review: “Where the Crawdads Sing” — Are the Rural Poor Noble Savages?

By Jeremy Ray Jewell

Delia Owens suggests that the only forward movement for her outsider-protagonist and “swamp trash” is to become curators of ecological/cultural museums in the very places where they once struggled for an independent life.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Penguin Random House, 384 pages, $26.

The connection between poverty and an intimacy with nature has long been part of class divisions in rural communities, a source of idyllic benefit for the economically depressed, ‘backwoods’ places. The rural South is no exception, of course. The region has been ground zero for urban America’s idealization of rural poverty since the days Bostonians penned minstrel numbers and Tidewater and Carolina cavaliers yearned to replicate the Norman Conquest through the prerequisite use of forced labor.

An intimacy with nature as an element that distinguishes the rural from the urban poor appeals to a broad swath of society. For the urban poor, the idea resonates with memories of bucolic rural pasts. For the wealthy, both urban and rural, the notion reinforces the supposition that the rural poor are contentedly living in harmony with the natural world. Separated from nature, guilty about their excesses, the privileged transform the rural poor into  ‘noble savages’, innocent and pure. They are seen as the tragic victims of progress. Are rural outcasts really leading such charmed lives with nature?  Or are they really all-too-human, unwittingly participating in the demise of their way of life?

Where the Crawdads Sing is a debut novel by nature writer Delia Owens. It is both a murder mystery and a coming-of-age story set in coastal North Carolina in the 1950s-’60s. The narrative draws on the author’s naturalist background to  vividly and critically depict a Southern society that’s still within living memory.  The plot revolves around a child named Kya, who is abandoned by her family to live by herself in the marshes and swamps along the North Carolina coast. The marsh, because it is located beyond the reach of civil authorities, is home to the lower classes. (Kya is pejoratively referred to as “marsh girl” and “white trash,” proof of the link between the “wasteland” and the “no-counts” who inhabit it.)  Nature and the environs of the marsh supply her with independence as well as an ad hoc family. The proximity to the land may suggest poverty, but it also supplies society, a point made by life in “Colored Town,” whose inhabitants form the closest thing to a human community Kya has.

Unfortunately, Owens employs a very specific  — and indeed all-too-familiar  — twist to this tale of the intertwining of poverty and nature. The poor’s relationship to the land is not about their use of it or their efforts to achieve independence through nature. Instead, Owens presents a protagonist whose value lies through her symbiosis within nature; she doesn’t impact her surroundings, but finds all she needs to thrive. Once again, rural poverty is idealized; we don’t see the ‘country’ poor struggle to survive, economically, in the same way as the urban poor.

Ironically, the most accurate depiction in Crawdads of the relationship between rural working-class Southerners and the land can be found in its least sympathetically treated character, Chase Andrews. Kya fuses with nature, but womanizer  Andrews exploits Kya sexually (spurring her destructive coming-of-age) while profiting from the environment. Here Owens contrasts the innocence of pure conservation with the realpolitik of those who get ahead by manipulating nature. Kya is a figure who will please those who see nature as something that must be preserved, rather than cultivated by people who depend on it for their existence.

Reese Witherspoon reading her future film project.

All this is to underline how Crawdads expresses an essential truth about class and ecology. Do we conserve ecology as a way to insure its continued use for those (the rural poor) who live off the land? Or romanticize it for the sake of the privileged classes who profit by it?  What direction should responsible ecological management take?  The hicks abusing (and inhabiting!) the land are seen in Crawdads and elsewhere as an ideological surrender. Owens unintentionally provides an example of how this looks. At the end of the novel, in the 2000s, the town of Barkley Cove has been transformed into a place where grits have become polenta, with all manner of Southern-lifestyle goods for sale. But people’s visceral connection with nature has been cut and/or sterilized. Ironically, it isn’t the rednecks abusing the marshes or each other that have brought this about. It is the mature Kya’s successful naturist artwork — the triumph of a domesticated ecological ideology.

Crawdads embrace by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club, with its celebrity lifestyle branding, makes the same sobering point. The book’s success lies in how it connects the noble savage (Southern “white trash” or “maroon”) with a comforting vision of conservation that is dramatized through the story of a woman who learns to feel emotions about love, her body, and nature. Reality is much more ambivalent: the heavily funded ecological industry and the rural peoples of the South are in conflict. What Crawdads lacks is acknowledgment of how the ‘primitive’, ‘backwards’ South is pressing itself against (or being squeezed out by) the ‘progressive’, ‘elitist’ South. The narrative welcomes rural gentrification while serving up an air-brushed reproduction of small-town Southern pasts. Today, as in the book, the townsfolk still jeer at the “swamp trash” outside of town. The only differences now is that the townsfolk have Witherspoon’s blessings, and the swamp trash are perhaps — rather less nobly than Crawdads‘s characters of yesteryear – cooking meth or fishing with car batteries.

The message of Owens’s tale is that the only forward movement for her outsider-protagonist and “swamp trash” is to become curators of ecological/cultural museums in the very places where they once struggled for an independent life. To her credit, the author does not present this as a happy ending. She knows that conservationism is potentially antithetical to social and cultural equity. In its contradictions, Kya’s tale bears close resemblance to the experience of North Carolina folk hero Robert Harrill, a.k.a. The Fort Fisher Hermit, who is rumored to have met his end following cruel harassment by some local hooligans. This quote is attributed to him: “My life here goes up and down like the tides of this old sea out here… Only nature determines my existence.” In hindsight, it is hard not to shake our heads at his admirable hubris. Evidently not, Mr. Harrill. There is nature, and then there is something else. And nothing is in harmony here. Not at all.

Jeremy Ray Jewell is from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is You can also support him on Patreon.


  1. drew on May 11, 2019 at 12:01 pm

    This is the best review I’ve read on this book. The high praise for this novel has confounded me, and with a single phrase — “once again, rural poverty is idealized” — you’ve articulated my unease with this book. Thank you for capturing what I experienced.

    • Sarah on July 5, 2022 at 9:15 am

      I don’t understand all of the praise either. The book was totally unbelievable and predictable.

  2. Joan on June 2, 2019 at 8:58 pm

    The best book I ever read. The ending made me very sad and I cried.

  3. George Magalios on June 10, 2019 at 10:54 am

    This person wrote a “review” with an agenda and not as an engaged reader. To reduce Where the Crawdads Sing to a parable about conservation and class in the South is to miss the entire point of the book: The tragedy of broken families, of war, of loneliness and the poetry and grace of survival even against prejudice. This reviewer is lost more than Kya ever was….

    • Thomas Clifton on July 6, 2019 at 10:08 am

      There was no war and this is one of the worst books I have EVER come across.

      • kim on September 3, 2019 at 11:10 pm

        Kya’s father was a war veteran.

      • nicole on September 25, 2019 at 11:18 am

        Kya’s brother was also a war veteran (Vietnam).

        • Kate on December 27, 2019 at 10:43 pm

          Uh, yeah…I get the feeling that some readers do not pay a whole lot of attention to what they read before they mouth off. I had my issues with the book as well, but the effects of war on human behavior and the human psyche is an important thread in this novel, affecting Kya’s life from the beginning and explaining much of her personality and her issues.

  4. Thomas Clifton on July 2, 2019 at 9:05 am

    This book promotes MURDER!! I no longer trust the New York Times Bestseller List! The “twist” was quite predictable and I suspected it all along due to Kya’s abusive behaviors she picked up from her father. I was not shocked at all, so there was a point where the author was trying so hard to “sell it”, and it just didn’t work. This book also keeps Kya alive even though she should have died a long time ago…She survived a rusty nail to the foot and with no clothes for 13 years?? Also, how can she steer a boat at age 6! I know I couldn’t do that at age 6 and would probably fail to do that now! I also do not believe all her siblings would abandon her so quickly and no one would help her except Jumpin’. I was more sad when Jumpin’ died than when Kya did, so that shows how little I cared for these characters. This book was not relatable at all, and throughout the entire thing, I just wanted it to stop. The entire court thing just dragged on for pages upon pages, and I knew Kya murdered Chase, so I just wanted it to end. When Kya started dating people, this was very disturbing and graphic. Scenes like these made me dislike her more and more because they showed that she didn’t actually want a family she just wanted to…you know. When everyone started dying at the end, the author was attempting so hard to grab your emotions. Again, it didn’t work for me at all. Now that I am finished with this book, I realized Kya was only looking for someone to murder. I’m VERY CONFUSED how she is reading college biology DAYS after learning how to read! This wasted so much time in my week!!

    • Chris on July 28, 2019 at 5:23 pm

      I totally AGREE!!! Thank you for expressing my exact feelings!!

      • Susan on October 12, 2019 at 1:57 pm

        I agree, I am scratching my head about why this book is so highly acclaimed. Simplistic, not well- written, characters that didn’t really make sense. I was disappointed.

        • Thomas Clifton on March 29, 2020 at 11:54 am

          I was generally confused, to this day, why people are raving about this book. It was literary trash.

  5. EILEEN on July 13, 2019 at 7:23 pm

    This book was incredibly boring, badly written and contained multiple glaring errors about North Carolina’s history, geography and its natural world. Does the author even have an editor or fact-checker? IMO, it was pitched to a YA audience and to Reece to make a movie. I would have donated it after 30 pages but it was selected by someone in my book club. I am seriously questioning how certain books obtain good ratings because this was such a chore to stay with.

    • Alice on July 13, 2022 at 1:28 am

      I totally agree. I did graduate work in marine ecology, and her natural history (like where particular plants grow) is all off.

  6. Teresa Durvas on July 31, 2019 at 7:21 am

    I too was perplexed at all the great reviews. The book was poorly written and just a preposterous premise. I couldn’t understand why they kept mentioning Asheville. Asheville is in the mountains the closest big cities near the coast would be Raleigh or Greenville NC.

    • Anonymous on June 6, 2020 at 12:17 am

      The geography was all over the place and Kya was a very unlikable character. I hate to use this phrase but Kya was hoeing around for the entire book and I was just very annoyed by her actions!

      • Melissa on January 26, 2021 at 5:27 am

        By hoeing do you mean tending to her vegetable garden?

  7. Phillip on August 7, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    Did anyone notice that Tate’s tragic story of losing both his parents was totally reversed halfway through the book? When Tate re-encounters Kya and sees him meeting up with Chase, the line states that he turns his boat around to “help his father load fish.” WHAT KIND OF AUTHOR FORGETS MAJOR DETAILS ABOUT THEIR CHAARACTERS?

    This book is total misandrous bile that characterizes everything wrong with our society today. I’ll keep my kids away from books like this, much better to read Huckleberry Finn!

    • kim on September 3, 2019 at 11:12 pm

      He lost his mother and sister not his mother and father.

    • Referencegirl on November 20, 2019 at 9:12 pm

      “Misandrous”? How? A couple of bad male character does not equal misandrous. Also, the review you responded to was about the noble savage trope used to portray the protagonist and the issues, in general, with such a trope. What a shame that you came here with an unrelated agenda and didn’t give the original reviewer the respect of engaging with their ideas.

    • Anonymous on June 6, 2020 at 12:19 am

      Apparently, the reason why you were angry is wrong. But that doesn’t change the fact this book was awful and lacked interesting qualities. It was trash.

  8. Sadie on September 16, 2019 at 6:12 pm

    The reviewer (and negative commentators) missed the point of the story. It was about nature vs. nurture. Kya had no nurture after her mother left, You had to buy into that premise or the story doesn’t work (hence the misguided responses – of course a young human child wouldn’t survive alone like that – it’s ridiculous). There were parallels to animals in nature throughout the book. The most telling is the description of the female praying mantis eating the male during reproduction – this foreshadowed the ending. Kya was just acting like an animal in nature. This was a story about animal behavior, pure and simple. All of the other commentary was reading far too much into a very simple premise.

  9. Janet Niederberger on September 24, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    I agree with the negative reviews. It was a chore to keep reading the book, but I too struggled to finish for my book club. It was pure fantasy. Where was the editor who let her get away with the ridiculous geography and events? How did a 7 year old survive alone and the boat and engine never break down or the roof of the shack fall in, and what about hurricanes? This “swamp girl” who grew up without adequate clothing or nutrition, who never saw a doctor or dentist, suddenly blossoms into a devastating beauty who attracts not one but two of the towns most desirable young men. Without a day of schooling, and with only minimal tutoring by a teen boy, she attains a university-level intellect and knowledge of science, becomes a (bad) poet, and speaks with perfect grammar and diction. I would have thrown the book across the room when I finished, but I read it on a kindle.
    P.S. Read the Slate article about the author’s own experience with getting away as an accessory to murder.

    • Anonymous on June 6, 2020 at 12:11 am

      I know many teachers and students can’t go from reading letters to textbooks in two years let alone a couple of months!

  10. linda gardner on October 17, 2019 at 6:37 pm

    I don’t understand the condemning,over-the top negative reviews. The book is a beautiful piece of fiction people. Get off of your high horses. I love the way the author writes and the story is wonderful. I couldn’t put it down.

    • Lin Nick on March 9, 2022 at 6:10 pm

      Thank you! me too. How arrogant and naive people are to think they can put themselves in the position of the child in this story, that period of time, that social circumstance and the almost feral existence she had even when both parents were present . How many times do we hear true life stories where young children have had to grow up fast in abusive and neglected circumstances. I listened to the unabridged audio and was mesmerized by the story, beautifully written, rich characters. captivating.

    • Jim banko on July 22, 2022 at 12:34 pm

      You are so right. When reading fiction you must have “a suspension of disbelief”. This why it is fiction. If you want actuality read the encyclopedia.

  11. […] Here is a great review that doesn’t address the grammar but does point out some contextual fla… […]

  12. Melissa on January 26, 2021 at 5:39 am

    I truly despised this book – trash Tess of the D’Urbervilles meets Twilight in a swamp.

    And the dialogue!! – I laughed out loud every time a character moaned / shouted / screamed another character’s name followed by “no, no!” – as in “Kya, Kya! No! No! – brilliant – evoked the best scenes of Tropic Thunder.

    Anyway – got that off my chest – first time I’ve ever posted a book review comment and unless they publish “Bridges of Madison County 2” it may well be my last.

  13. Joan Kennedy on October 12, 2021 at 9:09 pm

    I think everything that was terrible about this book could’ve been fixed with a better editor. Galway Kinnell was not yet publishing poetry the year that book would have appeared in Kya’s house. The other poet, too, was it John Berryman? Again, wasn’t publishing yet. One of those guys was in military service and the other was still in college, and wouldn’t see publication till the mid 1960s.

    And none of the characters should have been portrayed as speaking in dialect, certainly not with dropped G’s and such being written right into the dialogue. If you’re going to portray dialect you don’t do it by messing with the pronunciation, you do it by giving them idioms that are true to the time and place. Everybody in that book was a Southerner, the lawyers, the judge, the editor, everyone. They would all have been dropping G’s and final R’s, Plenty of “magnolia mouth” to go around. But they only had Kya and the two Black characters written in dialect. It comes off racist, which I’m sure fought Delia Owens’ intent. The editor should’ve fixed that. Owens herself just didn’t know, I don’t think she ever really studied writing the way she studied wildlife. That wasn’t her field. But once her book was in the system, they should’ve taken better care.

  14. Caroline Roi on January 8, 2022 at 9:02 pm

    The only plus was that I read this book – or as much as I could stand before flipping to the end and reading a plot summary later to fill in the gaps – in French translation. So I got to practice my French. Even so, the inconsistencies, wildly unlikely events, flat characters, predictable ending and on and on, as others have complained, made reading even as much as I did a chore.

  15. ELA on July 1, 2022 at 4:02 pm

    Whew – I thought my standards were too lofty. Without expanding into the larger topic of socioecopolitics: I found the characters wooden, moving in and out arbitrarily to further the story; (especially) the Black dialogue very stereotypical, and in this day, insulting; a near-mute simple wild child who for years struggles to barely survive, yet then accelerates, and develops critical observational insights of advanced scientific and artistic merit; then upon learning to read, rapidly and seamlessly aligns her DIY worldview with the contemporary Zoological templates, garnering niche fame, thriving with the assists of perfectly timed good luck; the distracting time jumps to prolong suspense, really just obscured the lack of complexity. The denouements were arbitrary, and without the true mystery’s ability to keep the reader guessing, yet reveal so that all can be surprised and satisfied – we were teased by the lack of clues, but never privy to her methods, tricks, near misses. I never felt life in anyone, so motives and impulses weren’t available to infuse the crime with drama or shock or sympathy. No inner life to explain her pathological, meticulous scheme of revenge, inner turmoil after, keeping a secret from Tate. My own biology studies weren’t in synch with my artistic inclinations, yet her painting and poetry were coming from such a different way of seeing that very few scientific minds also enjoy. The best description is it was a thin sort of not-very-Magical Realism, DaVinci of the Jungle.

    As critical literacy declines, readers desperate for something worthy, and also intent upon impressing friends, glom onto books like this. Far worse is available, as convoluted, florid “serious” prose that obsesses over limp, insipid, bored and boring people who do nothing interesting. The alternative is crisp, if unoriginal thrillers and horror. Accept that a best-seller doesn’t usually warrant the hype, and outstanding fiction is not being turned out by anyone, on a regular basis, and you can read without great expectations.

  16. Terri on July 22, 2022 at 11:53 am

    I’m still trying to figure out why she called her setting eastern NC. I grew up in eastern NC, my family has been there for generations, and I found her setting utterly unrecognizable. Has she ever been there? Did she even google it? She gets nearly everything wrong: The geography, the terrain, the weather, the aquatic life, the seafood that was harvested, and most importantly the dialect spoken. The Carolina Brogue (google it) may have mostly died out now but back then it was ubiquitous. And where are the major hurricanes of the 1950’s? If the “sense of place” is a major part of the book shouldn’t’ you try to get the place right?

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts