From the thickest swamp and most overgrown marsh emerges the compelling story of Kya Clark, town recluse, mocked misfit and Barkley Cove’s wildly free-spirited female heroine. Set in both 1955 and the years leading up to events that take place in 1969, this debut novel is all at once a mystery, romance and coming-of-age story that pushes beyond our narrow definitions of abandonment, betrayal, loneliness, and, ultimately, freedom.
Delia Owens creates worlds within worlds in this tale that begins with a mother walking away from her five children without a backward glance, leaving them with a father whose proclivity for drunkenness is only trumped by his sporadic and horrific acts of cruelty.
The youngest of five, Kya finds herself utterly alone in a shack in the marsh on the coast of North Carolina. Chased by truant officers, whose only victory is the one day she spends in school, Kya teaches herself life’s essential lessons. Digging for mussels, learning to smoke fish and eventually how to raise her own garden become the education of survival in which Kya is thoroughly versed.
Through the help of her older brother’s friend, Tate, Kya at 14 years old does learn to read and write adding the final pieces to her already proficient skill set, ones that will one day allow her a piece of the freedom she has to fight she vehemently to possess.
Offset within this story of survival is also the story of Chase Andrews’ murder. As the small-town hero who’s still regarded even years after his graduation as the best quarterback the town has ever seen, Barkley Cove’s residents will not rest until his murderer is found. As there is no evidence, no fingerprints, no tracks, it becomes increasingly impossible for local authorities to explain just how a renowned athlete could simply fall to his death from a tower he’s visited countless times since his youth. There must be an explanation.
Rumors circle, tongues wag, and, as it must, the town’s eye inevitably turns to the “marsh girl,” whose infamy seems to always hang heavily in the breeze.
As Delia moves both stories forward, readers learn more details of Kya’s past as well as they become intimately familiar with her heart. A distant friend, Mabel, offers this advice, “Ya need some girlfriends hon, ‘cause they’re forever. Without a vow. A clutch of women’s the most tender, most tough place on Earth.” Lacking the courage to approach a group of girls her age, Kya describes, “Their squeals made Kya’s silence even louder. Their togetherness tugged at her loneliness, but she knew being labeled as marsh trash kept her behind the oak tree.”
Moving from the heartbreak of losing her family to the heartbreak of her first love, Kya’s readers will fall in love with her themselves. Her scathing honesty and uncanny ability to see the world accurately will force Kya’s strangeness and her callow understanding of social cues to call into question the very manner in which we approach our lives and, most definitely, those who are different from “us.”
When her intricate knowledge of the marsh, its shells, its birds, its very life allows a means to undergird Kya’s life in a surprising way, she tells us: “She stepped up to him, lifted his hand and put the book in his palm. At first he didn’t understand, but she pointed to her name and said, “I’m okay now, Jumpin’. Thank you, and thank Mabel for all you did for me. He stared at her. In another time and place, an old black man and a young white woman might have hugged. But not there, not then. She covered his hand with hers, turned and motored away. It was the first time she’d seen him speechless. She kept on buying gas and supplies from him but never accepted a handout from them again. And each time she came to his wharf, she saw her book propped up in the tiny window for all to see. As a father would have shown it.”
Read this book. You will remember why you love to read, why you love those books in which everything else in the world stops except for you and the story and when you read the final page, you will be proud of Kya Clark, you will cheer for her bravery, her courage, her understanding of both ultimate survival and sacrifice. And, you will wish to understand one measure of how she knows the word free.