I read a crazy number of books, but Where the Crawdads Sing will go down as one of my favorites—I didn’t want it to end, it was such pure joy to read. There’s lots to love about this book, but most compelling for me, was that I felt a strong connection to Kya, the heroine.

Starting when I was five years old, I wanted my own home. It was such a fervent wish that I imagined it in detail, and “visited” every day, always just before I dropped off to sleep. I located it in a real place, in the woods a block away, and I made its structure something that seemed achievable, a hovel that I would someday dig in the shelter of my favorite trees. Even though the tunnels I dug for my matchbox cars always collapsed, I thought I could dig a hole as big as my family’s Buick. I would find a way.

I didn’t think food would be a problem either, since my Raggedy Ann books spoke of mud that was really chocolate, creeks flowing with soda, and cream puffs growing on trees. Never mind that they were rag dolls and didn’t need nourishment—without tasting a single clod of dirt, I believed my woods would feed me too. And since I’d never slept outside, I thought I’d be comfortable and warm enough with my coat, my blanket and pillow. For company, I would have my favorite stuffed friend, Blue Bear.

At the time, I was too young to understand why I wanted to run away. I thought the stork made a mistake, and delivered me to the wrong house, which meant the people I lived with weren’t really my family. And since they weren’t really my family, I thought I’d be better off taking care of myself than relying on them. That proved to be a good instinct. When I was 12, (a few years after my parents’ divorce, when my mother’s boyfriend moved in) I had to start fending for myself.

It’s no wonder I’ve always been a sucker for books about kids who find themselves on their own at a young age. Early on, I loved The Boxcar Children, about four orphans who lived in, yes, a boxcar, and were very resourceful, collecting rainwater for bathing, making pine needle beds, and salvaging dishes, pots, and pans from a nearby dump. They made my imaginary home seem perfectly realistic. If they could do it, so could I.

So, when I started reading Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens I was enthralled. Blurbs about it play up the mystery, the strong sense of place (North Carolina marshland) and the beautiful writing. But as the story unfolded, it was the child on her own that captivated me.

When Kya is 6, her mother and the last of her siblings leave the family’s shack to escape her abusive father—leaving Kya alone with him. The father comes and goes for the next few years, leaving “Monday money” for Kya to buy groceries with. But by the time she’s 10, he stops coming back, and she’s entirely on her own. Her beloved marsh sustains her.

“Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

She survives by collecting mussels and selling them to buy grits and other supplies, including fuel to keep her father’s boat running. She manages very well, but her family’s abandonment and the way the townspeople treat her, calling her “swamp trash,” are painful. The exceptions, a boy who befriends her—and teaches her to read, and the older African-American couple who own the shop where she sells her mussels, help her through tight spots, and their genuine affection for her is a salve for her loneliness.

In Kya’s marsh, I saw my long-ago woods. And when Kya’s father stops coming back, I saw my experience at 12, when my parents defaulted, no longer providing food and safe shelter. In Kya’s abandonment and loneliness, I remembered my own worst moments, when I was hungry, afraid of being homeless, my body under attack. In Kya’s triumph and survival, I saw mine too.  

This is a story I’d have enjoyed even without such an affinity for the heroine. It’s a page-turner and a deeply satisfying read. The writing is lovely, and from the opening chapters we’re brought into an engrossing mystery—a murder in which Kya is implicated. Not only was I transported back to my childhood, I was reminded of why I fell in love with reading.

I never did dig my hovel in the woods, but Kya’s story was the next best thing.