Delia Owens’ debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing zoomed up the bestseller list last year and continues to attract more readers, thanks to Reese Witherspoon’s selection of it for her Hello Sunshine book club, stoking word-of-mouth praise. The novel tells the story of Kya Clark, who grows up almost completely on her own in the coastal wetlands of North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s after her family abandons her. Kya, known to townsfolk as “The Marsh Girl,” spends her days collecting and cataloging the wildlife of her surroundings, until she becomes the suspect of a murder investigation. The novel, with its poignant theme of loneliness, is at once contemplative and suspenseful as Owens sets the developments in the murder case against the story of Kya’s desolate upbringing. Where the Crawdads Sing has sold more than 1.5 million copies across all formats and should garner even more readers now that Witherspoon has signed on to produce a movie version. If you loved this novel, what should you read next? Here are five suggestions.
Once Upon A River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell
In Where the Crawdads Sing, Kya Clark depends on her boat to survive, using it to gather mussels and escape to safety. In Bonnie Jo Campbell’s 2011 novel set in the 1970s, the heroine is 15-year-old Margo Crane, who sets out on her boat to find her wayward mother after her father is killed. Campbell expertly conveys both Margo’s inner life and the natural world of her surroundings in Michigan. While Kya fishes for food, the Annie Oakley-influenced Margo hunts, shooting well enough to hit a muskrat through its eye, so as not to damage its pelt. Margo and Kya are both extremely beautiful, attracting unwanted male attention. And both are determined to survive, despite the challenges that nature and disappointing humans throw their way.
Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell
Karen Russell’s 2011 novel, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, also features a girl growing up in a wetland environment. In this case, Ava Bigtree lives with her family in the Ten thousand Islands off the coast of Florida, where they run the alligator-wrestling theme park after which the book is titled. When Ava’s mother, the theme park’s most accomplished alligator wrestler, dies, the family is imperiled, with Ava’s father becoming despondent, her sister developing a strange obsession, and her brother leaving to work at a theme park called The World of Darkness. Ava embarks on a quest to save her family and Swamplandia! in this novel that is as full of aquatic life as is Where the Crawdads Sing, but is funny and quirky instead of serious and melancholy.
The Wildlands, by Abby Geni
Abby Geni’s winning second novel, 2018’s The Wildlands, features a family of orphans and a keen interest in nature, just like Where the Crawdads Sing. When a tornado ravages the home and farm of the McCloud family of Mercy, Oklahoma, killing their father, the eldest sister Darlene abandons her plans to go to college and instead focuses on raising her three younger siblings. She agrees to any media appearance that pays money, earning enough to buy a trailer and keep the family together, but also acquiring for them the title of “the saddest family in Mercy.” Darlene’s brother Tucker chafes under the media spotlight and leaves, after becoming increasingly obsessed with the animal kingdom and angry about humanity’s role in nature’s imperilment. When the youngest sister turns up missing, and Darlene begins to hear reports of an environmental vigilante making his way across the country, she suspects her siblings are involved. The Wildlands is moving, funny, surprising, and it invites the reader to ponder humanity’s connection to the natural world, just as Owens’ novel does.
My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent
Like Kya, 14-year-old Turtle in Gabriel Tallent’s 2017 debut novel suffers terrible abuse at the hands of her father and escapes into the wilderness for safety and solace. In this case, the wilderness is the Pacific coast of Mendocino, California, where Turtle lives in the woods, off the grid, with her frightening and dominating father. Turtle, like Kya, knows nature and its creatures intimately, and Tallent details her connection to nature with lavish prose. When Turtle meets two teenage boys and develops a crush on one, she realizes she’s got to escape her father, and relies on all her survivalist training as she attempts to do so.
Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett
Although Where the Crawdads Sing was Owens’ first novel, it wasn’t her first book. For years Owens, a trained zoologist, lived in Africa studying wildlife and co-wrote several books about nature with her husband. If you were entranced by Owens’ precise and loving descriptions of nature, you’ll love this 1996 National Book Award winner by Andrea Barrett. In “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” Barrett takes the reader inside Gregor Mendel’s famous studies of plants that transformed the field of genetics. In the title novella, a Canadian doctor must contend with an outbreak of illness among Irish immigrants in 1847. And in “The English Pupil,” Barrett catches up with the aging Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who gave science its system of nomenclature for organisms. Try this collection even if you normally don’t read short stories—each tale give the reader a novel-like immersion in a fascinating and detailed world.
What readalikes would you recommend for fans of Where the Crawdads Sing?