It seems like just about everyone has listened to Delia Owens' phenomenal Where the Crawdads Sing. In fact, the adult literary fiction novel has sold more than 11 million copies since its release date and shattered the record for the most weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction. But the book's runaway success wasn't expected—the initial printing was only 28,000 copies!—and unlike traditional best sellers, Where the Crawdads Sing only gained traction months after being published.
So, how did this underestimated debut novel by a retired wildlife biologist turn into one of the best books and biggest hits? Well, for one thing, it has sweeping, broad appeal. Among its features are a coming-of-age tale, lyrical nature writing, romance, and even a murder mystery—so safe to say, there’s something for everyone in this unforgettable gem. It also gained the attention of influential listeners like Reese Witherspoon, who chose the book for her ever-popular Reese's Book Club. Where the Crawdads Sing's success has further snowballed from there and has been adapted into a movie.
Whether you're looking to learn more about the storyline before diving in, refresh your memory from your initial reading or listening experience, or you're simply curious about the beloved best seller, we cover everything you need to know in this Where the Crawdads Sing synopsis. Below, you'll find a plot summary, a guide to the main characters, information on the audiobook, and more.
What is Where the Crawdads Sing about? (Spoiler-free!)
Kya Clark is the youngest of five siblings who live together in the isolated marshes of North Carolina. But after her mother disappears, followed by each of her four siblings and, finally, her abusive alcoholic father, she is left alone. Thanks to her relationship with her lush natural surroundings (and the kindness of a few neighbours), Kya manages to grow into a tough, capable young woman. Although folks in the fishing village tend to avoid the "Marsh Girl," she craves human connection and falls for two different young men. When one turns up dead, how can misunderstood Kya escape the blame?
Warning: From here on, the article contains spoilers for Where the Crawdads Sing.
What is Where the Crawdads Sing about?
(Synopsis and serious spoilers ahead!)
Where the Crawdads Sing tells the story of Catherine Danielle Clark, known as Kya, the youngest of five siblings growing up in a small cabin in the remote marshlands on the coast of North Carolina. Part one of the story, "The Marsh" begins in 1952 when Kya is six and her mother walks out of their shack without looking back. Her abusive, alcoholic father spirals, and her older siblings leave home one by one to escape him. The last to leave is Jodie, Kya's closest brother in age, and her mentor. Kya attempts to care for her father and their home, despite her young age, and for a brief period, it appears her father can turn his life around. But when a letter from Kya's mother arrives, her father becomes furious, burning the letter and most of her mother's belongings before falling back into a cycle of drinking and gambling that eventually leads him to disappear for good.
Left entirely alone in an isolated shack without reading, writing, or math skills, let alone an income, Kya looks to the plants and animals around her as a way to sustain herself. She trades mussels and smoked fish for supplies at a gas station owned by a Black couple, Jumpin' and Mabel, who befriend and look out for Kya throughout her life. As the townspeople from the nearby fishing port of Barkley Cove mock Kya and nickname her "Marsh Girl," Kya finds comfort collecting and categorizing shells, bones, and feathers based on the illustrations in an old guidebook. Tate Walker, an older boy who was a friend of her brother Jodie, starts a friendship with Kya by leaving her unique feathers. Once they begin talking, he teaches her how to read and write. Tate and Kya slowly form a romantic relationship. When Tate leaves for college, he promises to return to Kya. But while away, he realizes that she would never adjust to his social world and again leaves Kya alone with nothing but broken promises.
Part two, "The Swamp" skips forward to 1965, when Kya is 19 and even more ostracized. Chase, the star quarterback of the local high school, becomes the second young man to wade into Kya's life. After asking her on a date, Chase tries to sexually assault Kya. She runs away—but when he apologizes and seems sincerely contrite, she decides to give him another chance. They date for a year, and Chase says he is falling in love with her. Though unsure of her feelings for Chase, Kya gives him a necklace made with a distinctive shell she found; he is touched by her gift. Chase invites Kya on a weekend trip and, thinking he intends to marry her, she sleeps with him. Shortly after, an announcement in the newspaper reveals that Chase has gotten engaged to another woman. Realizing that Chase took advantage of her, Kya vows to never let anyone in again.
When Tate finishes college, he returns to Kya's shack to confess his love to her. Still angry and hurt by his abandonment, she rejects him. But upon seeing her collections of seashells, he encourages her to write a reference book. With his help, she publishes two books on seashells and birds of the marsh, earning her enough money to stop selling mussels and renovate the cabin, gaining further independence and professional respect at the same time.
Three years after their last encounter, Chase confronts Kya, intent on continuing their affair. When she refuses, he beats her and again attempts to rape her. Two men witness the attack, but Kya knows the town won't take her side. A few weeks later, Kya is invited to an out-of-state meeting with her publisher. During her time away, Chase is found dead in the marsh, lying face up at the base of a fire tower he took Kya to see on a date. The shell necklace Kya gave him, which he wore every day, is missing from the body, and red wool fibers matching a hat of Kya's are found on his jacket. As a result, Kya is arrested under suspicion of pushing Chase off the fire tower to his death.
Kya is jailed without bail for two months. A prominent lawyer offers to defend her, pro bono, and Tate, Jumpin', Mabel, and her publisher come to the trial to support her. Her lawyer makes compelling arguments about the lack of hard evidence against his client, her strong alibi, and the town's prejudice towards the Marsh Girl. The jury finds Kya not guilty.
Kya returns home to the marsh and acknowledges her love for Tate. He moves into her cabin, where they live until she dies peacefully in her boat at the age of 64, finally respected by her community and recognized as an expert on marsh wildlife. While searching for her will, Tate finds a stash of poems Kya wrote and the seashell necklace she gave to Chase. He realizes the prosecution's accusations against Kya were true. He burns the poems and places the seashell on the shore. Tate keeps Kya's secret hidden forever.
Who is Delia Owens? And how did nature inspire Where the Crawdads Sing?
Delia Owens grew up in rural Georgia, where her mother frequently encouraged her to explore the nearby woods by telling her to "go way out yonder where the crawdads sing." She visited North Carolina each summer of her childhood and now lives in the mountains of North Carolina. She studied zoology and earned a Ph.D. in animal behaviour, then spent years studying lions and hyenas in Botswana and elephants in Zambia. Owens co-authored three nonfiction books about her time as a wildlife scientist: Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savanna.
Where the Crawdads Sing is Owens's first novel. The title is a nod to her mother, and it also started a conversation about the many named freshwater crustacean (also known as crayfish, craydids, crawdaddies, and rock lobsters, among other names). Besides being influenced by the North Carolina landscape, Owens wrote based on her experience of being isolated in the wilderness during her studies.
Owens's knowledge of ethology, the study of animal behaviour, plays heavily into Where the Crawdads Sing. Kya studies the animals in the marsh and teaches herself to read using books about animal behaviour. She frequently uses what she's learned from animals' social behavior to better understand the humans she encounters. In writing the novel, Owens intentionally drew connections between animals and humans.
Who are the main characters of Where the Crawdads Sing?
• Catherine Danielle Clark, AKA Kya (rhymes with Maya) is the novel's main character and driving force. She is the youngest of five siblings in a family on the rural North Carolina coast but is left to fend for herself from a young age. She is tough, isolated from other humans, and spends much of her time studying the plants and animals of the marsh. The book follows Kya from age six through adulthood. Kya and her family are white; Kya describes herself at one point in the book as "white trash."
• Ma and Pa are Kya's parents. Ma, an artist, disappears when Kya is six. A wounded WWII veteran and an alcoholic gambling addict, Pa is emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive to his wife and children. Kya tries to care for Pa for a time, but he ultimately disappears and leaves Kya entirely alone.
• Jodie is Kya's closest sibling in age and her mentor. He suffers Pa's abuse the longest to stay with and protect Kya before leaving. Their other siblings are Missy, Murph, and Mandy.
• Jumpin' and Mabel are a Black couple who own a gas station and convenience store near Kya's shack. Kya trades them mussels and smoked fish for supplies and money. Over the years, they take Kya under their wings and gather donated clothes for her.
• Tate Walker is a friend of Jodie who slowly befriends Kya by leaving unique feathers for her to find. They have a romantic relationship until Tate goes to college, and he later returns to win her over again.
• Chase Andrews is the star quarterback of the football team in the small town not far from the marsh where Kya lives. He seduces Kya and they date for a year. She breaks up with him upon learning he is engaged to another woman in town. Kya is later accused of pushing Chase to his death from a fire tower.
Who narrates the Where the Crawdads Sing audiobook?
The audiobook of Where the Crawdads Sing was released concurrently with the hardcover novel in 2018. It runs for 12 hours and 12 minutes and is performed by Audie Award-winning narrator Cassandra Campbell. Campbell brings Owens's story to life with versatility, North Carolinian dialects, and a focus on simple storytelling. Listening to the audiobook is the perfect way to appreciate the swampy noir setting and Kya's coming-of-age tale.
What do we know about the Where the Crawdads Sing movie?
Where the Crawdads Sing was released in July 2022 and is available to watch by Reese Witherspoon's production company, Hello Sunshine, and Sony Pictures. It stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya, Taylor John Smith as Tate, and Harris Dickinson as Chase. Filming wrapped up in early July 2021, and many behind-the-scenes photos of the film adaptation can be found on Delia Owens's website.