Compiled by Bruce Rickard
The author, Thomas Newkirk, writes about ‘owning the passages that speak to us.’ He says,
My Book Notes are just that, ‘owning the passages that speak to me.’ By recording the words and sentences that capture my attention I am ensuring that they are not lost to me and will continue to challenge and inspire.
My Book Notes are not a summary of the text. I am not attempting to condense what the writer is wanting to communicate, nor am I providing an outline.
My Book Notes are not a review of the text. I am not analysing what has been written, nor am I making a comment.
I’m pleased to share with you My Book Notes and hope you might be motivated to consider reading the books for yourself. All the books listed have contributed to my thinking and enjoyment so come with my tick of approval.
Where The Crawdads Sing
Category: Fiction & Literature
Themes: Nature, Love, Loss, Abuse, Abandonment, Relationships, Prejudice, Survival, Natural History, Art, Murder
Date Read: January 2021
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Kya was the youngest of five, the others much older, though later she couldn’t recall their ages. They lived with Ma and Pa, squeezed together like penned rabbits, in the rough-cut shack, its screened porch staring big-eyed from under the oaks.
Jodie, the brother closest to Kya, but still seven years older, stepped from the house and stood behind her. He had her same dark eyes and black hair; had taught her birdsongs, star names, how to steer the boat through saw grass.
‘I hafta go, Kya. Can’t live here no longer.’
She almost turned to him but didn’t. Wanted to beg him (Jodie) not to leave her alone with Pa, but the words jammed up.
‘When you’re old enough you’ll understand,’ he said. Kya wanted to holler out that she may be young, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew Pa was the reason they all left; what she wondered was why no one took her with them. She’d thought of leaving too but had nowhere to go and no bus money.
Pa had fought Germany in the Second World War, where his left femur caught shrapnel and shattered, their last source of pride. His weekly disability cheques, their only source of income. A week after Jodie left the Frigidaire stood empty and hardly any turnips remained. When Kya walked into the kitchen that Monday morning, Pa pointed to a crumpled dollar and loose coins on the kitchen table.
‘This here’ll get ya food for a week. Thar ain’t no such thang as handouts,’ he said.’Ever’thang cost sump’m, and for the money ya gotta keep the house up, stove wood c’lected, and warsh the laundree.’
For the first time ever, Kya walked alone toward the village of Barkley Cove to buy groceries –
She and Pa did this two-step, living apart in the same shack, sometimes not seeing each other for days. Almost never speaking. She tidied up after herself and after him, like a serious little woman. She wasn’t near enough of a cook to fix meals for him – he usually wasn’t there anyway – but she made his bed, picked up, swept up, and washed the dishes most of the time. Not because she’d been told, but because it was the only way to keep the shack decent for Ma’s return.
Hands to her mouth, she held her head back and called, ‘Kee-ow, kee-ow, kee-ow.’ Specks of silver appeared in the sky from up and down the beach, from over the surf.
‘Here they come. I can’t count as high as that many gulls are,’ she said.
Crying and screeching, the birds swirled and dived, hovered near her face, and landed as she tossed grits to them. Finally, they quieted and stood about preening, and she sat on the sand, her legs folded to the side. One large gull settled onto the sand near Kya.
‘It’s my birthday,’ she told the bird.
Kya sat down fast in her seat at the back of the room, trying to disappear like a black beetle blending into the furrowed trunk of an oak. Yet nervous as she was, as the teacher continued the lesson, she leaned forward, waiting to learn what came after twenty-nine. So far, all Miss Arial had talked about was something called phonics, and the students, their mouths shaped like O’s, echoed her sounds of ah, aa, o, and u, all of them moaning like doves.
(Having been served her lunch), she turned into the seating area, where most of the tables were full of kids laughing and talking. She recognised Chase Andrews and his friends, who had nearly knocked her off the sidewalk with their bikes, so she turned her head away and sat at an empty table. Several times in quick succession, her eyes betrayed her and glanced at the boys, the only face she knew. But they, like everyone else, ignored her.
Above the roar of pounding waves, Kya called to the birds. The ocean sang bass, the gulls sang soprano. Shrieking and crying, they circled over the marsh and above the sand as she threw piecrust and yeast rolls onto the beach. Legs hanging down, heads twisted, they landed.
A few birds pecked gently between her toes, and she laughed from the tickling until tears streamed down her cheeks, and finally great, ragged sobs erupted from that tight place below her throat. When the carton was empty, she didn’t think she could stand the pain, so afraid they would leave her like everybody else. But the gulls squatted on the beach around her and went about their business of preening their grey extended wings. So, she sat down too and wished she could gather them up and take them with her to the porch to sleep…
Months passed, winter easing gently into place, as southern winters do. The sun, warm as a blanket, wrapped Kya’s shoulders, coaxing her deeper into the marsh. Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land that caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kay laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.
Scupper went on. ‘Don’t go thinking poetry’s just for sissies. There’s mushy love poems, for sure, but there’s also funny ones, lots about nature, war even. Whole point of it – they make ya feel something.’ His dad had told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what’s necessary to defend a woman.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Tate,’ she said, making a little curtsy. He caught a glimpse of the spunk and sass somewhere inside. ‘Now, can we meet somewhere besides here? Please.’
‘Sure, I guess, but why?’
‘Jumpin’ said the Social Services are lookin’ for me. I’m scared they’ll pull me in like a trout, put me in a foster home or sump’m.’
‘Well, we better hide way out where the crawdads sing. I pity any foster parents who take you on.’ Tate’s whole face smiled.
‘What d’ya mean, where the crawdads sing? Ma used to say that.’ Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: ‘Go as far as you can – way out yonder where the crawdads sing.’
‘Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters. Now, you got any ideas where we can meet?’
‘There’s a place I found one time, an old fallin’-down cabin. Once you know the turnoff, ya can get there by boat.’
She waited the next day. Each hour warmed until noon, blistered after midday, throbbed past sunset. Later, the moon threw hope across the water, but that died too. Another sunrise, another white-hot noon. Sunset again. All hope gone to neutral. Her eyes shifted listlessly, and though she listened for Tate’s boat, she was no longer coiled.
Dully Kya watched fireflies scribbling across the night. Each species of firefly has its own language of flashes.
Suddenly Kya sat up and paid attention: one of the females had changed her code. First, she flashed the proper sequence of dashes and dots, attracting a male of her species, and they mated. Then she flickered a different signal., and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings.
Kya knew judgment had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same colour in different light.
She waited another hour for Tate, and finally walked toward the shack.
The next morning, swearing at the shreds of cruel hope, she went back to the lagoon. Sitting at the water’s edge, she listened for the sound of a boat chugging down the channel or across the distant estuaries.
At noon, she stood and screamed, “Tate, Tate, No, No.” Then dropped to her knees, her face against the mud. She felt a strong pull out from under her. A tide she knew well.
From bed, she heard the marsh beyond, in the lifting of blackbird wings but didn’t go to it. She hurt from the crying songs of the gulls above the beach, calling to her. But for the first time in her own life, did not go to them. She hoped the pain from ignoring them would displace the tear in her heart. It did not.
Listless, she wondered what she had done to send everyone away. Her own ma. Her sisters. Her whole family. Jodie. And now Tate. Her most poignant memories were unknown dates of family members disappearing down the lane.
Tate and life and love had been the same thing. Now there was no Tate.
‘Why, Tate, why?’ She mumbled into the sheets. ‘You were supposed to be different. To stay. You said you loved me, but there is no such thing. There is no one on Earth you can count on.’ From somewhere very deep, she made herself a promise never to trust or love anyone again.
When all her shelves were empty, Kya finally motored to Jumpin’s for supplies but didn’t chat with him as usual. Did her business and left him standing staring after her. Needing people ended in hurt.
By the end of August her life once more found its footing: boat, collect, paint. Months passed. She only went to Jumpin’s when low supplies demanded but spoke very little to him.
Her collections matured, categorised methodically by order, genus, and species; by age according to bone wear; by size in millimetres of feathers; or by the most fragile hues of green. The science and art entwined in each other’ strengths: the colours, the light, the species, the life; weaving a masterpiece of knowledge and beauty that filled every corner of her shack. Her world. She grew with them – the trunk of the vine – alone but holding all the wonders together.
But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not a splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells.
Months turned into a year.
The lonely became larger than she could hold. She wished for someone’s voice, presence, touch, but wished more to protect her heart.
The group of kids – now young adults – she’d watched occasionally through the years ambled toward her, tossing a football, running and kicking the surf. Anxious they would see her, she loped to the trees, sand tearing from her heels, and hid behind the broad trunk of an oak tree. Knowing how odd this made her.
Not much has changed, she thought, them laughing, me holding up like a sand crab. A wild thing ashamed of her freakish ways.
On her rare trips to the village, she’d heard their slurs. “Yeah, the Marsh Girl gets her clothes from coloured people; has to trade mussels for grits.
Yet after all these years, they were still a group of friends. That was something. Silly-looking on the outside, yes, but as Mabel had said several times, they were a sure troop. “Ya need some girlfriends, hon, ‘cause they’re forever.”
Kya found herself laughing softly with them as they kicked salt water on one another.
Their squeals made Kya’s silence even louder. Their togetherness tugged at her loneliness, but she knew being labelled as marsh trash kept her behind the oak tree.
She tracked them, mostly him, down the shore. Her mind looking one way, her desire the other. Her body watched Chase Andrews, not her heart.
She tried to force herself to avoid that beach and stick to the marsh, searching for bird nests and feathers. Stay safe, feeding grits to gulls. Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size.
But loneliness has a compass of its own. And she went back to the beach to look for him the next day. And the next.
Looking over her shoulder, she nodded. He stepped out of his boat and held out his hand to her – long tanned fingers, an open palm. She hesitated; touching someone meant giving part of herself away, a piece she never got back.
He didn’t hold her hand, but now and then, in natural movement, their fingers brushed.
Kya knew Chase had chosen not to go to college but to work for his dad. He was a standout in town, the tom turkey. And somewhere within, she worried she was also a piece of beach art, a curiosity to be turned over in his hands, then tossed back the sand. But she walked on. She’d given love a chance, now she wanted simply to fill the empty spaces. Ease the loneliness while walking off her heart.
He watched her.
Finally, she said, ‘What do you want now, Tate?’
‘If only you could, some way, forgive me.’ He breathed in and waited.
Kya looked at her toes. Why should the injured, the still bleeding, bear the onus of forgiveness? She didn’t answer.
Waves broke over her back, drenching her hair. Fast moving, dark clouds streamed just above her head, blocking the sunlight and obscuring the signs of eddies and turbulence. Sucking the day’s heat.
Still, fear eluded her, even as she longed to feel terrified, anything to dislodge the blade jammed against her heart…. Wet through, she shivered as her energy drained, making it difficult to steer. She’d brought no foul-weather gear, no food, no water.
Finally, the fear came. From a place deeper than the sea. Fear from knowing she would be alone again. Probably always. A life sentence.
If anyone understood loneliness, the moon would.
Drifting back to the predictable cycles of tadpoles and the ballet of fireflies, Kya burrowed deeper into the wordless wilderness. Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream.
But in her twenty-second year, more than a year after Chase and Pearl announced their engagement, she walked the sandy lane, blistering with heat, to the mailbox every day and looked inside. Finally, one morning, she found a bulky manila envelope and slid the contents – an advance copy of The Sea Shells of the Eastern Seaboard, by Catherine Danielle Clark – into her hands. She breathed in, no one to show it to.
Sitting on her beach she looked at every page. When Kya had written to the publisher after Tate’s initial contact and submitted more drawings, they sent her a contract by return mail. Because all her paintings and text for each shell sample had been completed for years, her editor, Mr. Robert Foster, wrote to her that the book would be published in record time and that her second on birds would follow soon after. He included an advance payment of five thousand dollars.
Now in her hands, the final copy – every brushstroke, every carefully thought-out colour, every word of the natural histories, printed in a book. There were also drawings of the creatures who live inside – how they eat, how they move, how they mate – because people forget about creatures who live in shells.
She touched the pages and remembered each shell and the story of finding it, where it lay on the beach, the season, the sunrise. A family album.
After tying up, Tate stepped up to her. ‘Kya, your book is a wonder.’ He leaned slightly forward, as if to hug her, but the hardened rinds of her heart held her back…
‘It was you, Tate,’ she said, and then thought, It was always you. One side of her heart longing, the other shielding.
‘Jodie, I’m so sorry you worried about leaving me. Not once did I blame you. We were the victims, not the guilty.’
She hesitated, then said, ‘This may be hard to believe, but for a while Pa was good to me. He drank less, taught me to fish, and we went out on the boat a lot, all, over the marsh. But then, of course, he went back to drinking and left me to fend for myself.’
Jodie nodded. ‘Yeah, I saw that side of him a few times, but he always went back to the bottle. He told me once it had something to do with the war. I’ve been to war myself and seen things that could drive a man to drink. But he shouldn’t have taken it out on his wife, his own kids.’
The letter in the blue envelope. Ma had asked for her, for all of them. Ma had wanted to see her. But the outcome of the letter had been vastly different. The words had enraged Pa and sent him back to drinking, and the Kya had lost him as well. She didn’t mention to Jodie that she still kept the letter’s ashes in a little jar.
‘Ma allowed herself no life, no pleasure. After a while, she started talking more, and all she talked about was her children. Rosemary (sister) said Ma loved us all her life but was frozen in some horrible place of believing that we’d be harmed if she returned and abandoned if she didn’t. She didn’t leave us to have a fling; she’d been driven to madness and barely knew she’d left.’
Ma died of leukemia. Rosemary said she died much as she had lived. In darkness, in silence.
‘I’m so sorry, Kya.’
‘Don’t be. Actually, I lost Ma years ago, and now you’re back. Jodie, I can’t tell you how much I wanted to see you again. This is one of the happiest and yet saddest days of my life.’
‘I only went to school one day in my life,’ she chuckled. ‘The kids laughed at me, so I never went back. Spent weeks outsmarting the truant officers. Which, after all the things you’d taught me, wasn’t very hard.’
He looked astonished. ‘How did you learn to read? To write your book?’ ‘Actually, it was Tate Walker who taught me to read.’
‘You ever see him anymore?’
‘Now and then.’ She stood, faced the stove. ‘More coffee?’
Jodie felt the lonely life hanging in her kitchen. It was there in the tiny supply of onions in the vegetable basket, the single plate drying in the rack, the cornbread wrapped carefully in a tea towel, the way an old widow might do it.
The red spot on the herring gull’s bill, Kya knew, was more than a decoration. Only when the chicks pecked at the spot with their bills would the parent release the captured food for them. If the red spot was obscured so that the chicks didn’t tap it, the parent wouldn’t feed them, and they would die. Even in nature, parenthood is a thinner line than one might think.
One July afternoon in 1969, more than seven months after Jodie’s visit, The Eastern Seacoast Birds by Catherine Danielle Clark – her second book, a volume of stark detail and beauty – appeared in her mailbox. She ran her fingers over the striking jacket – her painting of a herring gull. Smiling, she said, ‘Hey, Big Red, you made it to the cover.’
She reared up, pushing him with both hands. Suddenly he slugged her face with his right fist. A sick popping sound rang out inside her head. Her neck snapped back, and her body was thrown backward onto the ground. Just like Pa hitting Ma.
Female fireflies draw in strange males with dishonest signals and eat them; mantis females devour their own mates. Female insects, Kya thought, know how to deal with their lovers.
She walked to the water’s edge. Chase would not let this go. Being isolated was one thing; living in fear, quite another.
She imagined taking one step after the other into the churning sea, sinking into the stillness beneath the waves, strands of her hair suspending like black watercolour into the pale blue sea, her long fingers and arms drifting up toward the backlit blaze of the surface. Dreams of escape – even through death – always lift toward the light. The dangling, shiny prize of peace just out of grasp until finally her body descends to the bottom and settles in murky quiet. Safe.
Who decides the time to die?
Before being arrested, she’d caught glimpses of a path back to Tate: an opening of her heart. Love lingering closer to the surface. But when he’d come to visit her in jail on several occasions, she had refused to see him. She wasn’t sure why jail had closed her heart even tighter. Why she hadn’t embraced the comfort he could give her in this place. It seemed that now, Kya being more vulnerable that ever, was reason to trust others even less. Standing in the most fragile place of her life, she turned to the only net she knew – herself.
‘Tate, listen to me: For years I longed to be with people. I really believed that someone would stay with me, that I would actually have friends and a family. Be part of a group. But no one stayed. Not you or one member of my family. Now I’ve finally learned how to deal with that and how to protect myself. But I can’t talk about this now. I appreciate your coming to see me in here, I do. And maybe someday we can be friends, but I can’t think about what comes next. Not in here.’
‘Mrs. Andrews, would you please explain what you see in this picture painted by the defendant, Miss Clark.’
‘That’s a painting of Chase and Miss Clark on the top of the fire tower.” A murmur moved through the room.
‘What else is going on?’ ‘There – between their hands, she is giving him the shell necklace.’
And he never took it off again, Patti Love thought.
‘Mr. Foster, how would you describe Miss Clark?’
‘She is a shy, gentle person, I believe. She prefers to be alone in the wilderness; it took some time for me to convince her to come to Greenville. Certainly, she would avoid a crowd of people.’
Tutored by millions of minutes alone, Kya thought she knew lonely. A life of staring at the old kitchen table, into empty bedrooms, across endless stretches of sea and grass. No one to share the joy of a found feather or a finished watercolour. Reciting poetry to gulls.
But after Jacob closed her cell with the clank of bars, disappeared down the hall, and locked the heavy door with a final thud, a cold silence settled. Waiting for the verdict of her own murder trial brought a loneliness of a different order. The question of whether she lived or died did not surface on her mind but sank beneath the greater fear of years alone without her marsh. No gulls, no sea in a starless place.
The annoying cell mates down the hall had been released. She almost missed their constant nattering – a human presence no matter how lowly. Now she alone inhabited this long cement tunnel of locks and bars.
She knew the scale of the prejudices against her and that an early verdict would mean there had been little deliberation, which old mean conviction. Lockjaw came to mind – the twisting, tortured life of being doomed.
Kya thought of moving the crate under the window and searching for raptors over the marsh. Instead, she just sat there. In the silence.
‘Most people don’t have to be acquitted of murder to be accepted.’
‘I know, and you have every reason in the world to hate people. I don’t blame you, but….’
‘That’s what nobody understands about me.’ Kya raised her voice, ‘I never hated people. They hated me. They laughed at me. They left me. They harassed me. They attacked me. Well,it’s true; I learned to live without them. Without you. Without Ma! Or anybody!
Why had they apprehended Tate? Was it something to do with Chase’s death? Had they arrested him?
Agony ripped her. Finally, after a lifetime, she admitted it was the chance of seeing Tate, the hope of rounding the creek bend and watching him through reeds, that had pulled her into the marsh every day of her life since she was seven. She knew his favourite lagoons and paths through difficult quagmires; always following him at a safe distance. Sneaking about, stealing love. Never sharing it. You can’t get hurt when you love someone from the other side of the estuary. All the years she rejected him, she survived because he was somewhere in the marsh, waiting. But now perhaps he would no longer be there.
Had he not been so obsessed with his own heart, perhaps he would have noticed his father was failing. Before her arrest, Kya had shown signs of coming back – gifting him a copy of her first book, coming onto his boat to look through the microscope, laughing at the hat toss – but once the trial began, she had pulled away more than ever. Jail could do that to a person, her thought.
Tate remembered his father’s definition of a man: one who can cry freely, feel poetry and opera in his heart, and do whatever it takes to defend a woman.
‘Kya, I’m so sorry. I have bad news. Jumpin’ died last night in his sleep.
An ached pushed against her heart. All those who left her had chosen to do so. This was different. This was not rejection; this was like the Cooper’s hawk returning to the sky. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and Tate held her.
Standing on the porch, Mabel rushed to Kya. They hugged, rocking back and forth, crying.
‘Land, he loved ya like his own dander,’ Mabel said.
‘I know,’ Kya said, ‘and he was my pa.’
Later, Kya walked to her beach and said farewell to Jumpin’ in her own words, in her own way, alone.
Tate and Kya hoped for a family, but a child never came. The disappointment wove them closer together, and they seldom separated for more than a few hours of any day.
Sometimes Kya walked alone to the beach, and as the sunset streaked the sky, she felt the waves pounding her heart. She’d reach down and touch the sand, then stretch her arms toward the clouds. Feeling the connections. Not the connection Ma and Mabel had spoken of – Kya never had her troop of close friends, nor the connections Jodie described, for she never had her own family. She knew the years of isolation had altered her behaviour until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. 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.
For Kya, it was enough to be part of this natural sequence as sure as the tides. She was bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are. Rooted solid in this earth. Born of this mother.
Others came to her graveside because her books had taught them how the marsh links the land to the sea, both needing the other.