I listened to the audiobook of this novel by Delia Owens because Meghan McCain recommended it for her part of The View‘s Ladies get Lit segment for summer reading. Obviously that was a while ago, but it took me some months to get the audiobook from my library so I could listen to it.
I highly recommend the audiobook, btw. I thought the narrator did a fantastic job, and while she doesn’t have a southern accent (the book takes place in North Carolina), I thought she did a good job of imitating a North Carolina accent for the dialogue, but I’m no judge of accents, so take that with a big grain of salt.
The book is about Kya Clark who keeps getting abandoned in a marsh in North Carolina. The youngest of several children (I forget exactly how many), the string of people abandoning Kya starts when her mother walks out the door and never comes back. Her husband is an abusive alcoholic and she reached her breaking point. Since the kids don’t want to stick around to get beaten by their father, the older ones take off. Jody, Kya’s older brother closest in age to her, sticks around the longest, but after a severe beating from their father, he decides he can’t stick around any longer, so he tells Kya he’s leaving and off he goes.
As far as we know, her dad doesn’t cook because we never see him do it, and he’s hardly ever around, so Kya basically teaches herself to cook through memories of watching her mom do it and a lot of trial and error. Keep in mind, this child is 6 years old.
Kya knows where her parents keep what little money they have (they live in a shack in the marsh, living on her dad’s benefits from the army after having served in WWII), and she knows where to buy the supplies she needs, but she has no idea how to count money. She goes to her local Piggly Wiggly, gets what she needs, and when the cashier tells her how much it costs, the numbers mean nothing to Kya and the money in her hand means nothing. The woman takes a bill or two out of Kya’s hand and shows her each coin as she counts out her change for her as a way of teaching her about money and the value of each coin.
Kya doesn’t even know when her birthday is. She just remembers her mom telling her that the autumn moon came out for her birthday, so after a few months on her own, Kya sees the autumn moon go up and said, “I reckon I’m 7,” and that is the entirety of her birthday celebration.
Shortly after that, the truant officers show up looking to take Kya to school. Kya hides from them, but they lure her out with the promise of a hot meal for lunch, so she goes, but the kids make so much fun of her that she can’t even enjoy her lunch, so she never goes back. The truant officers try a few more times, but Kya knows the marsh like the back of her hand, so it’s easy for her to hide from them. Eventually they give up and Kya is on her own without the ability to read, write, or do simple arithmetic.
Her dad owns a small motorboat, but Kya has never been allowed on it by herself. So she works hard to get the cabin as clean as she can, and when he comes back, she cooks a big meal for him, having by this time turned herself into a half-way decent cook. Part way through the meal she asks if she could go out fishing with him some time. He says yes and is actually pretty decent to her when they’re out on the boat together.
But eventually he leaves and never comes back and Kya has to figure out how to get enough money to pay for the things she needs. One day she’s at her local convenience store buying a few things, and when she sees oysters for sale, asks Jumpin, the black man who owns the store, if he ever buys oysters and he tells her he’ll buy about 40 pounds a week from whomever brings them in first, so she goes out to the marsh very early in the morning, digs up as many oysters as she can, and brings them in.
But after a few days in a row of someone else beating her to it, Kya decides she needs to diversify her income. OK, she doesn’t put it like that, but that’s basically what she’s doing. So she goes out fishing, catches a bunch of trout, makes a big fire in her dad’s smoke shack, and smokes them all, then brings them in for sale. Jumpin takes one look at her sorry, falling-apart fish and knows he can’t sell any of them, so he tells her he’ll pay her on commission. Any fish that get sold, she’ll get a piece of the sale. Any that don’t sell she can have back. Kya says that sounds fine and goes back home.
Jumpin tells his wife, Mabel, about this little white girl all alone in the marshes trying to make ends meet. Kya is careful to talk like her dad is still around so the authorities won’t come and take her away, but Jumpin sees right through it. He doesn’t rat on her because he’s a black man in North Carolina in the ’50s, so he doesn’t trust the authorities any more than Kya does? But he and his wife figure they need to do something to help Kya, so they do a little fundraising for her at their church and get people to donate food and clothes. The next time Kya comes into Jumpin’s store, he has a box of stuff for her and points out that if she doesn’t take it, he’ll have to haul it back, making it sound like she’d be doing him a favor by taking it off his hands for him, so she does.
In the mean time, a boy named Tate starts hanging out with Kya. He’s a few years older than she is, but he teaches her to read, which gives her something to do in the long, lonely hours on her own out in the marsh. They bond over their love of nature and the marsh. Tate wants to go to university to study biology and become a biologist, and while Kya doesn’t go to school, once she learns how to read, she quickly catches up to him by reading everything she can about nature and biology, in addition to closely observing the world around her.
They fall in love, and when Tate has to go off to college, he promises he’ll come back and see her 4th of July weekend, but when he does come back, he manages to sneak up on her and spy on her without her knowing. He sees her running and hiding from the sound of someone else’s boat and the wildness in her eyes makes him realize that, while she may be his intellectual equal, she could never fit in his world, so he leaves without saying anything to her and Kya is abandoned once again.
Shortly after that she starts seeing Chase Andrews, who is probably the catch of the town. He’s attractive, athletic, and very popular, and for some reason he takes an interest in Kya, who by this time has become known as “the Marsh Girl”. I wouldn’t say Kya ever falls in love with Chase, and deep down she probably knows that too, but she doesn’t exactly have any other options. The girl can survive just fine on her own in the marsh but she is starved for human company. Chase woos her and they have sex, but he never brings Kya to orgasm. Nevertheless, he keeps claiming he wants to marry her and she likes the idea of being married and sharing her cabin with someone and having a family again.
Until she reads in the local paper the announcement of his engagement to another woman.
Fast forward a few years and Chase’s body is found in the marsh. He apparently fell from a local lookout tower and bashed his head in on the way down. It could have been an accident, but it seems unlikely that someone as smart and athletic as Chase would fall off a tower, so they start investigating the possibility that he was murdered. The tower is clean of all prints, including Chase’s, which seems pretty suspicious.
Knowing he had had a thing with Kya a few years back and that she knew her way around the marsh, she quickly becomes their prime suspect. When they find a wool hat in her cabin that matches a fiber found at the alleged crime scene, they arrest her and put her on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews.
I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will say that it is fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent listening to this audiobook.
What did you read/listen to this week? Anything else with themes of loneliness and abandonment?