My friend Reggie turned me on to Where the Crawdads Sing. Seems she did the same for her feline housemate GiGi.
GiGi seemed disappointed that the book wasn’t a cookbook. After all, crawdads is simply another name for crawfish. And since Reggie loves crawfish etouffee, turtle soup, and anything cooked ala Creole or Cajun, so does GiGi. Maybe she wasn’t disappointed, merely lost in another world—one in which she’d have crawfish for dinner.
So I closed my eyes and joined her. First for memories of crawfish, then for the marshes and swamps where they thrive. Then for the marshes and swamps themselves. I conjured the scene painted by the opening lines of both Delia Owen’s bestselling novel and its movie version. I wish I could have written them. I know I have experienced them.
Marsh is not swamp.
Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea,
and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace—as though not built to fly—against the roar of a thousand snow geese.
Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawlsDelia Owens
into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests.
Swamp water is still and dark,
having swallowed the light in its muddy throat.
Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff;
a poignant wallow of death begetting life.
Critics praised Where the Crawdads Sing for its well-crafted plot, complex characters, and engaging mystery. For me, though, it was the setting that consumed my imagination.
Although the story was set in North Carolina, I read the book in Virginia, and watched the movie in Florida. But I experienced it as if I were in Louisiana, where critters emerge silently in flotsam-flecked swamps, blue herons noisily bark at any intrusion into their sunny marsh, and screech owls pierce the pitch-darkness of a thunder-filled night.
I got to know swamps and marshes up close. I could smell the difference.
Like Kya, I paddled, hiked, and fished the wetlands. I had a pirogue—a flat-bottom canoe—which was perfect for low-lying, muddy waters. I also had a friend with a small motorboat and a retreat on the Tangipahoa River. There, rustic camps still bury themselves among the hardwood forests, bald cypress groves, brackish marsh, and swampy bayous of the long, lazy river named after a local indigenous tribe. And though separated by a thousand miles and half a century, I pictured Kya’s cabin looking like one of them.
Thanks to my friend with the boat, I got to know the people who lived off the liquid land on that river. Names like Duke, Zelda, and Shelby were reminiscent of the Crawdads’ cast of characters—Chase, Mabel, Tate. Jumpin’ Bait & Gas could well have been the Bedico Marina 50 years back.
Imagine my delight to learn that the movie version of Where the Crawdads Sing was filmed in the same mysterious waterways I loved. That Kya really lived in a simple house like those on the Tangipahoa. That as Marsh Girl, she could indeed live there. That her environs looked familiar because they were. I know the remote reaches of Fontainebleau and Fairview-Riverside State Parks, Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, and the Tchefuncte—and Little Tchefuncte—Rivers where the movie was filmed. I read that production was often disrupted by severe lightning storms, floods, heat, and bug bites. Been there, done that, too.
I didn’t know, but found it quite interesting, that the courtroom scenes were shot in the Historic St. Bernard Parish Courthouse in Chalmette, Louisiana, where the people are affectionately known as Chalmations. And Houma, known for its annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, was the site of the fictional Barkley Cove. It didn’t take much to transform the Cajun city into an early-60s fishing village.
While GiGi looks like she’s dreaming of crawdads for dinner, I’m dreaming of where they sing. That place, according to Owens’s character Tate, is “where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.” Where, according to Owens herself, marsh and swamp and water flow into the sky, where grass grows in water, and death begets life.
I opened my eyes. It’s time to read the book again.
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