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Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on August 14, 2022
What I liked most about this book is the depictions of believably real (though fictional) characters challenged by real-life issues, with the characters' basic motivations well described and integrated into a story of how the characters succeed or fail against their challenges, and why. I believe the philosophical term for literature of this kind is "metaphysical values."

(I haven't seen the movie so far but probably will see it eventually. Meanwhile, the various trailers that I've seen seem to indicate that the novel's main spirit may have been badly mangled in the movie, possibly to emphasize issues such as racial prejudice and other forms of bias against those who are "different," and other contemporary concerns. From various critical reviews on this website, it also appears that the story itself may have greatly misrepresented what North Carolina was actually like in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. But I don't see geographical or historical accuracy as necessarily essential to a fictional story concretizing important metaphysical values.)

At the end of the novel, in the Q&A with the author (pp. 376-377), there is a very concise description of what the book is about. The story follows the life of a young girl named "Kya" living mostly alone in fictional marshlands in North Carolina from age 6 to her death from natural causes (unexpected heart failure) at age 64. It's a story of how she survives with minimal help from anyone else. A child of 6 wouldn't have been able to survive alone for long without significant knowledge and experience gained from interaction with other humans, and she did receive minimal interaction with her mother, brother, father, brother's friend Tate (later Kya's first lover and eventual husband after a fateful 2nd love with Chase Andrews), and a married (black) couple in the nearby fictional town of Barkley Cove. Tate and Chase both disappoint Kya deeply, Chase so strongly that Kya becomes the prime suspect when Chase is found dead, apparently murdered. (Chase lied to her about potentially marrying her, and he even tried to rape her, causing her to fear that Chase would keep trying again and again by force.) Before Tate leaves her while he goes to college, she learns to read with Tate's help. He also gives her many old books to read, mostly on life science. She apparently never receives access to any books in literature, history, philosophy, or other general humanities subjects. She remains forever shy and defensive toward most other people despite becoming highly adept at studying the wild animals and plants in the marsh, writing books of her own on her observations, becoming successful as a published author, and painting vivid sketches of what she observed. Along the way, she also learns to count beyond 29 and to count money and make change, again with help from Tate and others.

At her trial for the murder of Chase, the prosecution presents serious evidence against her, but the evidence isn't quite strong enough to obtain a guilty verdict from the jury (beyond reasonable doubt). She has an especially good alibi, although it has weaknesses that leave room to doubt her innocence. Since there are also reasonable doubts about her guilt, the jury verdict is "not guilty." One key piece of evidence, a "shell necklace," remains missing until the very last page of the story, shortly after Kya's death, when Tate (whom she had married by then) finds it. For those who want to be surprised, I won't say more about the details of the ending. Kya certainly would have had to be incredibly resourceful and daring, perhaps far larger than real life, to have been able to construct such a convincing alibi, if she actually was the murderer. The symbolic parallel to the mating rituals of fireflies provides a strong hint about Kya's mental state.

The events of the story are mainly just the backdrop. The story's main focus is on how Kya felt and how she learned so much about nature and life sciences from her own direct observations and from books that she read, without ever attending school at any level for more than one deeply unpleasant day at age 6. Despite how little she learned about humanities subjects and how to deal with other people, the story depicts her as focused on the reality that she was exposed to, and on how she used her natural intellectual capacity to make sense of it as best she could. She certainly functioned on a reality-is-real premise, though without explicitly identifying that premise or comprehending its higher implications for human living; she also felt her emotions without any explicit appeal to any greater mysticism or other-worldly perspective. (Kya shows no superstitiousness or religious worship of natural phenomena.) But the story doesn't attempt to delve further than that into issues of values, why man needs them, and how best to choose and pursue one's values. With access to books, Kya surely would have had the opportunity to do such deeper reading in real life, even if she remained otherwise isolated from most other people throughout her life. She had Tate, along with the two adult townspeople, her publisher, and to some extent her brother Jodie -- all of whom provided emotional support to her during her trial. She is a heroine of sorts, though a severely stunted and crippled one, especially emotionally toward others.

The author describes the story as "primarily about self-reliance, survival and how isolation affects human behavior. Since our species is a social mammal, we have strong genetic tendencies to belong to a group of tightly bonded family and friends." (P. 376.) What "genetic tendencies" does this refer to? How much personal choice do humans have? Man has a non-automatic rational faculty on which he needs to depend for his survival. But he also needs a lot of help from others, especially family, along the way as he proceeds from the stage of a newborn infant to adult life. Without such help in childhood, the stunted growth that may hinder a child's development and readiness for adult living should not be surprising. A more heroic kind of story might explore more fully how much more a person can learn about life from books, and how events might unfold as such a person strives to apply such learnings in practice. Kya certainly makes a valiant and largely successful effort, which, for me, makes Crawdads excellent as far as it goes.
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