Having just finished Tara Westover’s Educated, I wasn’t sure I could get through another young-girl-gets-abandonded-and-raises-herself story. Within the first 10 pages, Kya’s mom and only remaining sibling walk away, leaving her to live in a shack on the North Carolina marsh with her drunk and abusive dad. Eventually he, too, disappears, and this becomes a story of Kya raising herself–the marsh girl–from a 10 year old who digs oysters to sell for grits and gas to a young woman who learns to read and becomes a wildlife specialist writing illustrated books about marsh ecosystems. The parallel story is a murder mystery of a young man found dead in the marsh and the aw-shucks detectives trying to figure out whom to arrest. When the story starts, it’s 1952 and Kya is 7. The death of Chase Andrews happens in 1969, so chapters flip flop between the two stories as Kya grows up, learning to navigate independent life on the marsh and interacting with the few locals she trusts. Eventually the two stories converge in 1969 when Kya is in her mid 20s.
I enjoyed much of the first half: life on the marsh, its estuaries and wildlife, and Kya’s relationship with all things non-human. The author is a wildlife scientist, and it’s clear that’s her passion and her expertise as she describes Kya in these lowlands: easing through the marshes, digging muscles, spotting heron, padding barefoot through bushes and brambles. But some of the relationships between characters seems stilted and unnatural, and by the end of the book, it almost seemed like a different writer—one who wanted to finish the story by skimming over Kya’s life with a telly narrative lacking the details that make a character seem real. It’s a page-turning and enjoyable read, but overall not great writing, and nowhere near Barbara Kingsolver or Pat Conroy, though some have unfairly compared the book to both.