There are days when I dream of going off the grid. Days where I’m stuck in traffic on my way to being stuck in an office cubicle then stuck in traffic again on the drive home I daydream of getting away from the city and living in a small shack/cottage/lean to somewhere out in the woods. Once there my only responsibility would be to observe and enjoy nature. Sounds idyllic, right?
Seven-year-old Kya and her family live out in the Carolina marshland. They are looked down upon by the towns people as ‘marsh people’ and shunned. Consequently, when one by one the members of her family leave their shack home due to the cruelty of their father Kya’s plight is ignored. On a rare outing with her father to the local diner a young girl comes up and greets Kya but the girl’s mother pulls her away loudly proclaiming Kya is diseased.
Eventually even her father abandons her and she is left out in the middle of the marsh on her own. Truant officers lure her to school with the promise of a hot meal but she does not return after the one day due to the way the other children either ignore or make fun of her.
Consequently, Kya is left to figure out how to survive on her own while dodging both the officials who wants to bring her back to school and town children who like to run up to her shack and touch it on a dare. Eventually she becomes known as ‘the marsh girl’ and treated by the town as a local wilderness pariah.
“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”
Kya spends her childhood scrabbling for survival as well as developing a fine-tuned appreciation for the beauty of the nature surrounding her. Eventually she attracts the attention of two young men who are each drawn to her wild beauty.
The evolution and outcome of these two very different affairs is the main point of the book. Since Kya has no mother, sister or girlfriends to turn to for advice she takes her cues from nature:
“Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core. Tate’s devotion eventually convinced her that human love is more than the bizarre mating competitions of the marsh creatures. But life also taught her that ancient genes for survival still persist in undesirable forms among the twists and turns of man’s genetic code. For Kya it was enough to be part of this natural sequence as sure as the tides. Kya was bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are. Rooted solid in this earth. Born of this mother.”
Intertwined with this storyline is a second storyline that starts ten years later with the murder of a prominent town citizen who happens to be one of Kya’s lovers. The two storylines eventually meet up – of course Kya is accused of the crime and dragged from her marsh home to jail and the eventual trial. Even in the courtroom she relies on nature to make sense of what is happening:
“The language of the court was, of course, not as poetic as the language of the marsh. Yet Kya saw similarities in their natures. The judge, obviously the alpha male, was secure in his position, so his posture was imposing, but relaxed and unthreatened as the territorial boar. Tom Milton, too, exuded confidence and rank with easy movements and stance. A powerful buck, acknowledged as such. The prosecutor, on the other hand, relied on wide, bright ties and broad-shouldered suit jackets to enhance his status. He threw his weight by flinging his arms or raising his voice. A lesser male needs to shout to be noticed. The bailiff represented the lowest-ranking male and depended on his belt hung with glistening pistol, clanging wad of keys, and clunky radio to bolster his position. Dominance hierarchies enhance stability in natural populations, and some less natural, Kya thought.”
One could call this novel a mystery but there is so much more going on here. Loneliness, love, nature, hate, prejudice – all these themes are explored in depth. What does childhood loneliness do to our ability to relate as adults? Are humans truly that different from animals? Can we survive without nature? Without love?
“lot of times love doesn’t work out. Yet even when it fails, it connects you to others and, in the end, that is all you have, the connections.”
In the end as damaged as Kya becomes it is the connections that enable her to survive and even know joy – the couple that befriend and aid her, the boy who teaches her to read, the brother who eventually returns to find her, the lawyer who comes out of retirement to take her case and the editor who publishes her books. How these connections are all resolved and Kya’s eventual fate kept me enthralled to the end.
This is a book I can see myself reading over and over again – perhaps even in a cabin in the woods one day. Hopefully, loved ones will be there with me too.