'Where the Crawdads Sing' by Delia Owens

When “Where the Crawdads Sing” zoomed to the top of the bestseller list last year, I assumed from the title that Delia Owens’ book was set in Louisiana. But the name of her novel, which unfolds a few decades ago on the coast of rural North Carolina, was inspired by something Owens recalled from her Georgia childhood.

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Owens’ mother, who loved nature, would encourage her to go “way out yonder where the crawdads sing” — to places still so untouched by the noise of modern life that one might not only see crustaceans but hear them.

Regardless of whether crawfish really sing, the ideal Owens contemplates — some quiet refuge set apart from texts, phone calls, Netflix and tweets — resonates with our basic desire to get away from things for a while each summer. Owens’ book is itself a kind of alternate world, her prose so descriptive that you quickly get lost in it.

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Some weeks ago, to keep us company on a long trip into Acadiana, my wife played the audio version of “Where the Crawdads Sing” in the car. The opening, though it describes a part of North Carolina, made me think of south Louisiana: “Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace — as though not built to fly … Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat.”

Owens’ writing, we decided, was too good for the road, taking so much of our attention that we had little left for driving. We switched off the recording, but I made a note to read “Where the Crawdads Sing” later.

The book, a kind of murder mystery, is on my summer reading list, which I just mistyped as “summer reading lost.” It’s a telling slip, revealing what I like most about reading at this time of year — or at any time, really. During many of my waking hours, I’m skimming the surface when I scan a sentence, running the rapids of Twitter, Facebook and news alerts as I try to mentally stay afloat. But a good book can be an invitation to immerse my brain in a deeper current somewhere beneath the urgencies of the media cycle, staying lost for a bit from the biting insistence to keep up with the next scandal, the next tragedy, the newest Washington outrage.

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I’m a slow reader, but if I finish “Where the Crawdads Sing” before fall arrives, other summer books beckon: “Autumn Light,” Pico Iyer’s latest memoir; and “Everything in Its Place,” the late Oliver Sacks’ posthumous collection of essays.

With any luck, these writers will offer a summer sanctuary — a landscape of imagination where I might even hear the crawfish sing for myself.


Email Danny Heitman at dheitman@theadvocate.com.