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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
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Where the Crawdads Sing tells the harrowing story of Catherine Daniel Clark, “Kya,” and her will to survive in the marshes along the North Carolina coast. With poetic prose, the author, Delia Owens, details the natural world and wildlife and the ways in which all creatures learn to love and communicate.

Abandoned

When Kya was just six years old, her mother, Ma, walked out of the tiny shack Kya shared with her four siblings and parents, and Ma never came back. Kya’s father, Pa, was an abusive alcoholic, and over the next weeks, he would drive away all of Kya’s older siblings, including her beloved brother and mentor Jodie.

Kya didn’t understand what made everyone leave or why they didn’t take her with them. Even though Pa was mean, he was all she had left, and she was desperate to make him stay. She took over the household duties—cleaning, doing the laundry, and cooking. For a few months, things were good for Kya and Pa. He appreciated how hard she worked to make a nice home, drank less often, and stayed home more.

Kya was sure things would be different when her mother decided to return. But after a letter arrived in her mother’s handwriting, Pa turned back into the drunk monster he was. He stayed away from home more and more, until one day he never came back. Kya was on her own.

A Little Help From Friends

Kya only attended one day of school in her life. Whenever the truant officer came looking for her, she hid in the woods behind her shack. Without Pa, Kya had no money or food. She started digging for mussels before dawn and sold them to Jumpin’, an old black man who owned a gas and supply store on a wharf near her marsh. Jumpin’ bought Kya’s mussels and continued to do so over the years. He and his wife, Mabel, also collected clothes, toiletries, and shoes for Kya from members of their church. A deep bond formed as the couple began to care for Kya as one of their own.

With Jumpin’ and Mabel’s help, Kya was able to survive her childhood alone in the marsh. She grew into a natural navigator and expert of marsh life, collecting various specimens, such as feathers, bones, nests, and shells. She used an old guidebook to identify the species of each and placed each item next to paintings she made. She didn’t know their names, however, because she still couldn’t read.

When Kya was fourteen, she found a feather stuck in a stump. She suspected it had come from a boy she’d seen running by a few moments before. The feather was rare, and the next day there was another. A game proceeded, with each leaving feathers for the other, until one day, Kya finally met the boy. His name was Tate, and he’d been an old friend of Jodie’s.

Tate and Kya grew close quickly. He taught her to read, count, and connect with someone without fear. He was the first person since her family left that Kya let into her heart, and they fell in love. Tate visited her marsh whenever he could, and their bond grew deeper. A year later, Kya was crushed when Tate left for college. He promised to come back for her, but he never did. Once again, she’d been abandoned by someone she loved, and loneliness swallowed her up.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Kya was ostracized by the townspeople of Barkley Cove. Everyone held a low opinion about people from the marsh, and rumors about the crazy Marsh Girl were common. Sometimes, Kya would see kids her age playing on one of the beaches between her marsh and town, and she’d watch, wishing she could be with them. One of these kids was a boy named Chase...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Prologue: 1969

A swamp should not be mistaken for a marsh. A marsh is alive, full of light, winged birds, and grasses stretching through glistening water toward the sky. The marsh meets with the sea and holds various creeks and lagoons that reach like fingers for the open water.

A swamp,...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 1: Abandoned—1952

Kya was six years old when her ma walked out of the house one morning, slamming the porch door on her way out. Kya was used to seeing Ma walk down the long dirt lane leading from their house to the ruddy road into town. This day, like all the others, Kya ran to the porch to wait for Ma to turn back at the bend and wave. Kya noticed that Ma was carrying a suitcase and wearing her fancy faux-alligator-skin heels. At the bend, Ma didn’t turn and wave. Kya ran to a part of the field where the road to town becomes visible, but all Kya saw was the end of the suitcase disappearing behind a bush.

Her older brother Jodie, the youngest of Kya’s four older siblings, stood with her. He promised that Ma would return, that mothers don’t abandon their children. But he didn’t sound convinced. Jodie was seven years older and had always been Kya’s mentor of sorts, teaching her about marsh wildlife and how to navigate the waterways in Pa’s boat. Kya wanted to believe him, but she sensed the suitcase and heels told a different story.

Kya’s family home was a shack on a large plot of land a few miles outside the main town of Barkley Cove. The land was surrounded by palmettos, lagoons and...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 2: A New Way of Life—1952 to 1953

Kya had gotten used to hiding in the overgrowth of the marsh for safety, just as Jodie had taught her. So when she heard the sounds of a car coming up the dirt lane to their shack, that’s exactly what she did. From the brush, Kya watched a man and woman step out of the car and walk up the steps to the porch.

The woman called through the screen door, announcing she was there to take Kya to school. Kya was desperate to learn to read and find out what came after twenty-nine, but she was afraid of other kids. But when the woman, Mrs. Culpepper, yelled that Kya could get a hot lunch, Kya’s hunger won out. She stepped forward and allowed herself to be taken to school.

Kya was placed in the second grade despite never attending a day of school in her life because they couldn’t find her birth certificate. The classroom held twelve other students, most of them dressed in clean clothes and shoes, and Kya had never seen so many people in one room before. She took a seat in the back of the class, barefoot and in a soiled dress.

When the teacher asked Kya to spell “dog,” she searched her mind for the lessons Ma and Jodie had given her about letters. She wavered and blurted out...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 3: Becoming Grown—1956 to 1960

By the time Kya was ten, Pa was a passing mirage in the shack. He’d stay out for weeks at a time, not bothering to leave any money. Soon, she was able to count several full moons since she last saw him. She imagined all the things that could have happened to Pa, like being beaten up during a poker game or falling drunk into the swamp and drowning. Whatever had happened, Kya knew that Pa wasn’t going to come back.

Unlike with Ma, Pa leaving didn’t make her feel abandoned, just lonely. She was also scared that someone would find out he was gone and take her to live somewhere else. The marsh was her home, and the birds needed her. Leaving wasn’t an option. To avoid the authorities, she’d have to pretend Pa was still at home.

The only saving grace was that Pa had disappeared on foot, leaving the boat behind. Kya survived by digging for mussels in the sand and smashing them into a spread on crackers for each meal. But she had no more supplies. The house was dark at night without kerosene for the lamps, and she only had a few matches left. She had to find a way to get some money.

New Relations

Early one morning, Kya awoke before the sun and went mussel hunting up and...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 4: Murder in a Small Town—1969

On the morning of October 30, 1969, two Barkley Cove boys climbed to the top of the old fire tower in the swamp outside of town. They stared at the landscape from the top until their eyes landed on someone lying in the mud below. After yelling to try to get the person’s attention, they ran back down the stairs and found the dead twisted body of Chase Andrews.

Normally, the town sheriff, Ed Jackson, didn’t bother with crimes committed in the swamp. He figured trash killing trash was beyond his jurisdiction, but when the boys told him who the victim was, he jumped into action. He and the town doctor drove out to the fire tower and examined the body.

Both men, along with everyone in town, knew who Chase Andrews was. He was a charismatic child who grew into a popular teen. He was the star quarterback in high school and had joined his father at the auto shop business as an adult. He was married and lived a charmed life. Chase’s parents would be devastated when they found out their only child was dead.

At first, both men assumed Chase had fallen from the tower. The top of the fire tower was made out of large metal grates. Different squares could be pushed up, creating an...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 5: Womanhood—1960 to 1962

Kya’s body was changing in ways she didn’t understand. Without a woman around for guidance, she’d moved through puberty without restriction. So when Mabel gave her a bra, she was surprised and embarrassed. Mabel said “it was about time she be needing one” and added that she was always available if Kya needed to talk about any other changes in her body.

A few weeks went by before Kya needed Mabel’s help again. She was in her boat on the open water when her stomach started to cramp. It was a pain like she’d never felt before and made her double over. She motored back to her beach and docked the boat. Right then, she heard the sound Tate’s boat motoring toward her. She cursed his terrible timing and hoped she wouldn’t have to run into the woods to let out whatever was causing her insides to twist.

Tate sat next to her on the sand and immediately noticed something was wrong. After Kya described her pain, Tate went quiet. He dug his toes into the sand and kept his gaze toward the sea. Then, Tate said it sounded like she was going through what girls her age went through and reminded her of a pamphlet he’d brought from school regarding the menstrual cycle.

Kya’s whole body...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 6: A Beautiful Woman—1965 to 1966

At nineteen, Kya had become a tall, lean, striking young woman. Her hair was long and coal black, and her eyes were large and captivating. She had remained sheltered all these years, with only her collection, textbooks, and poetry to keep her company. She’d grown accustomed to her life, but she never lost the longing for others.

One day, Kya sat on Point Beach along the coast between her shack and Jumpin’s watching the tide roll in and out. A crush of voices suddenly filled the air. Kya ran into the forest and watched as a group of young adults scurried over the place she had previously sat. They were the same group she’d seen a few times, the kids who’d scorned her as children now grown up.

The girls included Tallskinnyblonde and Roundchubbycheeks, along with two others, and a handful of boys tossing a football. She recognized one of the boys as Chase Andrews. On occasion, Kya was forced to venture into Barkley Cove, where she’d heard these people snickering behind her back. She didn’t want to envy them, but she couldn’t help it, especially the girls and their close female bond.

Kya was transfixed by Chase and his strong tan shoulders. At one point, the football was...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 7: The Barkley Cove Judge and Jury—1969

Patty Love entered the police station late in the afternoon. She wanted to know if the sheriff had any leads or other information about her son’s death. Sheriff Jackson thought it was surely foul play and said they were doing everything they could to find the person responsible. That was when Patty Love told them her news.

Patty said there was a shell necklace Chase had worn almost every day for four years. It was a single shell with a piece of rawhide laced through. She knew he’d been wearing it the night he died because he’d been over for dinner. But when she saw Chase’s body, he wasn’t wearing the necklace, and it wasn’t part of his possessions held by the coroner. She was certain the necklace wasn’t loose enough to have simply fallen off.

Ed was curious about the significance of the necklace. Why would Chase wear such a thing on a daily basis? Had someone special given it to him? Patty Love fell quiet. She knew rumors had spread around town about her son and the Marsh Girl carousing a year before he got married, but she’d never been able to talk about it—her son with such trash.

But now, it was different. She was sure that girl had done something to her boy. She...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 8: A Beautiful Nightmare—1966 to 1968

A year had passed since Kya and Chase had come together, but things had not progressed physically. What had changed was the way Chase talked about their future. Chase started talking about building them a house after they were married. He said Kya could choose whatever kind of house she wanted, and he’d build it for her, including a veranda that looked over the water. Chase’s words were music to Kya’s ears. She would be forever attached to another. She’d finally have a family.

As Chase continued imagining their new home (away from town so Kya would be more comfortable), Kya remembered the conversation they’d had about his parents. Had he told them about her, and would they accept her? Chase said his parents would love and support whatever decision he made. If he said Kya was the woman for him, they’d love her, too. This life all sounded too amazing, and although Kya wasn’t positive she loved Chase like a husband, the fantasy of it made her swell with emotion. Her life could really change.

Chase had to go to Asheville for business over one weekend and wanted Kya to come. Kya hesitated. Asheville was a big city, and she didn’t have the right clothes or know how to act...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 9: The Past Comes Calling—1968 to 1969

One winter morning, Kya received a massive surprise while working on her third book, a guide to local mushrooms. From the kitchen table, she heard tires rolling over the gravelly lane to her shack. A red pickup pulled in, and she thought about running, her normal way of dealing with visitors, but it was too late. A man dressed in a military uniform was walking to her porch.

When Kya went to the door, something about the man struck a chord in her. He had a long, uneven scar running from his ear to mouth. Her mind left the moment and returned to another: the Easter Sunday before Ma had left.

That day, Kya and Ma had hidden painted eggs for the other children. When the hunt was over, each child had a basket full of pastel eggs and chocolate bunnies. Suddenly, Pa appeared drunk and angry. He grabbed Kya’s basket and raged at Ma about where she got the money for the treats. He accused her of lascivious acts and shook her by the shoulders.

Kya tried to intervene and received a hard slap across the face. Pa grabbed a fire poker and charged at Ma, slashing her in the chest. Then, Jodie was on top of Pa, wrestling him to the ground. Jodie yelled for his sister and mother to run, and...

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 10: Truth and Lies—1969 to 1970

A few days before Christmas, Kya motored toward Jumpin’s before dawn. She was more cautious than usual, had been ever since the sheriff and deputy had started coming to her shack. When she got close enough, she could make out Jumpin' on his chair near the store. She waved as she normally did, but Jumpin' didn’t move or say a word. After a second, he gave the slightest shake of his head. Kya slowed the boat, turned quickly, and headed back to her shack. Appearing out of the fog were several boats, one with the sheriff at the helm.

Kya tried to lose the boats by heading out to sea. But there was no time. The boats surrounded her, and two officers jumped into her boat and detained her. Deputy Purdue said she was under arrest for the murder of Chase Andrews and read her her rights.

Kya was held in custody in the town’s holding cells for two months. On February 25, 1970, she was led into a courtroom in handcuffs with her lawyer Tom Milton by her side. Tom had taken over for the public defender after reading about Kya’s arrest. He was from the area and had heard stories about the Marsh Girl over the years. He took her case pro bono, coming out of retirement at seventy-one....

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Where the Crawdads Sing Summary Where the Crawdads Sing Guide Chapter 11: A Different Life—1970 and Beyond

Kya’s supporters, including Scupper, who’d shown up in court a few days earlier to support his son, were impatient for the verdict. Tom told them he couldn’t predict how long the jury would deliberate or what their verdict would be but reminded them that even with a guilty verdict, the fight wasn’t over.

The jury asked for documents twice. The first was the bus drivers’ transcripts. The second was the coroner’s transcript. The hours dragged, and as her support team sat unsettled, so did Kya in her cell. She had lived a life of loneliness, but waiting for the verdict created a sensation like she’d never known. Thinking of never seeing her beautiful marsh again made her feel more alone than before.

At four o’clock the same day, the jury had a decision. Tom delivered the news with a solemn expression. A verdict this fast didn’t bode well for Kya. The townspeople clustered back into the courtroom, which was at capacity within ten minutes.

Judge Sims asked Kya to rise. Jumpin' and Mabel clasped hands. Tate leaned as far as he could toward Kya’s back. The energy in the room had shifted from before. **The salivating eagerness of community to condemn Kya was gone. Now, most...

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Shortform Exercise: Finding Meaning in Kya’s Story

Although the circumstances of Kya’s journey are particular and uncommon, the themes resonating from her story are more universal.


What are your main thematic takeaways from the story of Kya’s life and struggles?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Prologue: 1969
  • Chapter 1: Abandoned—1952
  • Chapter 2: A New Way of Life—1952 to 1953
  • Chapter 3: Becoming Grown—1956 to 1960
  • Chapter 4: Murder in a Small Town—1969
  • Chapter 5: Womanhood—1960 to 1962
  • Chapter 6: A Beautiful Woman—1965 to 1966
  • Chapter 7: The Barkley Cove Judge and Jury—1969
  • Chapter 8: A Beautiful Nightmare—1966 to 1968
  • Chapter 9: The Past Comes Calling—1968 to 1969
  • Chapter 10: Truth and Lies—1969 to 1970
  • Chapter 11: A Different Life—1970 and Beyond
  • Exercise: Finding Meaning in Kya’s Story