This best-selling novel begins in heartbreak, sweeps through lyrical descriptions of North Carolina marshes, and ends with a stunning surprise. Each day, I’d look forward to reading it in the evening, and hated to see it end.
The story opens with a six-year old named Kya being abandoned by her mother and siblings who can no longer live with her abusive, alcoholic father. She has no money, no electricity, no running water and no food in a shack miles from the nearest town. The action begins in 1952, slightly more credible that the social services wouldn’t have been all over her case. An effort to get her to school fails miserably when the other kids make fun of “swamp trash.” She never returns, though the food is tempting, choosing instead to make sea gulls her companions. Wistfully, she feeds them and turning seven, confides, “it’s my birthday.” A later comment underscores the tragedy: “loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm.”
Before the plot gets too depressing, a bright light enters: Tate. She’s startled when he knows her name, but he will remain Kya’s true friend for the rest of her life. (Understandably, she has abandonment issues, fears the townsfolk and finds it hard to communicate.) He teaches her to read; a black couple give her donated clothing and a little company. Meanwhile, she grows resilient and becomes a collector of and expert on the surrounding nature. Her maturation is interwoven with the puzzling details of a murder, the son of the town’s wealthiest couple, slightly older than Kya. It’s unclear to the reader how that fits, but one continues, pleased that Kya seems to be the proverbial flower growing through asphalt, the tireless spark of the divine in the human that can flourish in the worst circumstances.
Her life grows slightly more complex, but still revolves around the tides and the rich life of sea and marsh. She becomes a superb naturalist, like the author who has won awards for her wildlife writing. The descriptions of grasses, feathers, shells, snow geese and stars are like a psalm to creation. Dialogue sounds stilted, and is clearly not Owens’ strong suit, but the Kya character is too appealing to fault. Rare good times with her father (notably he once calls her “hon”) cease; he vanishes. Despite countless setbacks, she thrives and the reader cheers her success against impossible odds.
By the time the book climaxes in a courtroom scene, the reader’s heart pulses in the throat, tensely rooting for Kya. It emerges then that the townspeople who seemed so distant and bigoted also have that spark of the divine. A small coterie protects her, and the small efforts others made years before to help the lonely child are revealed.
Perhaps we respond with empathy to Kya because there’s a little of her in all of us: isolated, shy and afraid. We cheer her smallest victories and yearn for her happiness because she is such a poignant expression of ourselves. A constant subplot is the devastation wrecked on Kya’s mother and her children by domestic abuse, but a slight twist for justice and glimmer of change comes at the end.