Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
I didn’t grow up in the marshlands of North Carolina like Kya, the main character of the film “Where the Crawdads Sing.” I grew up on the plains of Western Kansas, where water is something you pray for.
Unlike Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), my parents didn’t abandon me at the age of 10 to fend for myself with nothing but a ragged shack and an old boat.
But like the “Marsh Girl” (what folks in the fictional town of Barkley Cove insultingly call Kya), I’ve sometimes felt devalued by others because of where I grew up. For starters, some folks back home know me as a member of the third generation 0f the “Saline River Rats”—a derogatory nickname for the rowdy bunch of Fischer kids who were born and raised at the farmstead on the Saline River—though today we embrace the title.
Set in the mid-20th century, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is an adaptation of author Delia Owens’s smash hit novel published in 2018 under the same name. The film reflects on Kya’s challenging life as she stands trial for the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), Barkley Cove’s favorite guy and former star of the football team. It also recounts a tumultuous love triangle between Kya, Chase, and Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), a budding scientist who loves the marsh almost as much as Kya does.
Misconceptions of the Marsh Girl
As jurors of the court hear the case against Kya, the prosecution plays into the harsh stereotypes of the Marsh Girl. To them, Kya is an outsider. She is uneducated, having only attended school one day in her life. She is dirty, trashy, poor, ill-mannered, and wild. She doesn’t belong near the other folks of Barkley Cove, and should live the rest of her life in the isolating marsh.
The lack of complexity in these backwards views is easily spotted by anyone who’s grown up in a rural part of the world, including Kya herself.
“In town they tell the story of the Marsh Girl,” says Kya in an early monologue. “The one who grew up alone in the wild. But they never really knew me. Like most stories, the facts don’t weigh into it.”
Locals fail to look beyond the stereotypes to see Kya’s true self and refuse to value her as an equal member of society. Instead of looking at the many unique assets the Marsh Girl possesses, they focus on her so-called deficits.
Little did the townies know, Kya learned to read and write from Tate Walker. She read countless academic texts and knows the biology of the Carolina marshes better than anyone. She’s a delicate and detailed painter and an organized biological archivist. Give Kya a feather or a seashell and she will tell you the scientific name, place of origin, and migration patterns of whatever specimen it belonged to faster than you can say “Hey Google.”
In fact, Kya’s talents were noticed when a publishing company wanted to share her highly accurate illustrations and meticulous field notes about the flora and fauna of the unstudied Carolina marshland with the rest of the world. There is something to be learned from small, distant places after all.
Lessons in Lonesomeness
Through all this, the Marsh Girl never doubted herself or her identity, a lesson I could’ve benefited from had this story been released when I was a kid.
Despite being labeled, shunned, harassed, and attacked by Barkley Covers, Kya was never ashamed of the marsh. Why would she be? The marsh taught Kya everything she needed to know about life.
“In spite of everything trying to stomp it out, life persists,” Kya shares. “Way out yonder, where the crawdads sing, the marsh knows one thing above all else. Every creature does what it must to survive.”
Kya saw the marsh’s beauty, but never overlooked its unyielding danger. She saw nature’s cruelty, but understood the noble purposes of those that lived there. The marsh isn’t perfect. Just like rural communities aren’t perfect, suburban communities aren’t perfect, and urban communities aren’t perfect. But again, folks fail to see these complexities like Kya does, because the marsh is full of unknowns.
Just because marsh life—or any way of life—is less known doesn’t mean it’s less important or less honorable.
Urban Critics Miss the Point
Curious about others’ thoughts on the misconceptions of and lessons from the Marsh Girl, I moseyed over to some urban publications to do some exploring. What I found felt not unlike real-life parallels to the Barkley Cove community.
“A Wild Heroine, a Soothing Tale,” a New York Times headline reads.
“The Bestselling Novel Turned Into a Compelling Wild-Child Tale,” says a Variety headline.
The throughline: Kya is a creature of the wild. However compelling or heroic they find the story, these reviews hold that Kya remains an uncivilized person. An excerpt from the Times article seems to applaud Edgar-Jones’s “fairly normal” portrayal of Kya, but with some surprise and at arm’s length.
“Edgar-Jones has the good sense — or perhaps the brazen audacity — to play Kya as a fairly normal person who finds herself in circumstances that it would be an understatement to describe as improbable. Kya lives most of her life outside of human society, amid the flora and fauna of the marsh, and sometimes she resembles the feral creature the townspeople imagine her to be. Mostly, though, she seems like a skeptical, practical-minded woman who wants to be left alone, except when she doesn’t.”
Maybe it is audacious of Edgar-Jones to play Kya as a “practical-minded” woman like Owens wrote. Or maybe living farther away from society doesn’t substantially alter one’s ability to be human.
The Variety article similarly seems perplexed by Kya’s refined portrayal, though the author does point out their own potential biases.
“[Edgar-Jones] gives Kya a quiet surface but makes her wily and vibrantly poised—which isn’t necessarily wrong, but it cuts against (and maybe reveals) our own prejudices, putting the audience in the position of thinking that someone known as Marsh Girl might not come off as quite this self-possessed.”
With any hope, the film accomplished just that.
A Deeper Controversy, “Between Me, the Sand, and the Sea”
A recent, trending article from The Atlantic tells another tale, one shrouded in just as much mystery as Chase Andrews’s death, though more consequential as it takes place in Owen’s own life.
According to the article, Delia and her ex-husband Mark Owens are wanted for questioning by Zambian authorities in a case relating to a televised killing of a Zambian poacher in 1995.
During the release of her novel and now the release of this film adaptation, reporters and film critics alike have called out striking similarities between the Owens murder case and the murder case featured in her novel.
Related controversy surrounds Owens’s portrayal of Black characters in the novel. The author of the Atlantic piece shares a fellow critic‘s note that the novel “is filled with improbable and condescending portraits of Black people.” These critics have connected this poor portrait with the historic attitude Owens and her husband are said to have held toward Africans during their time in Zambia.
In the ending credits of the film, Taylor Swift’s original contribution to the soundtrack, “Carolina” hauntingly lulls the audience after the film’s final dark twist. How Owens’s own story will continue to unfold, and how much it will affect audiences’ desire to engage with her work, remains to be seen. It’s a question that follows a growing number of creators behind popular works. But for now, Swift’s lyrics allude to the dark realities that surround the author and her inspirations for “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
But the sleep comes fast
And I’ll meet no ghosts
It’s between me, the sand, and the sea
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is currently playing in theaters.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.