Take a novel that is one part survival story, one part murder trial story, with a subplot of love, heartache, and retribution thrown in, and you have the plot for author Delia Owen’s first fictional book.
The bestselling author of nonfictional books about wildlife brings her expertise on nature into this story, as the main character, Kya, describes her home of the marshlands off the coast of South Carolina. Kya’s isolation, thanks to being abandoned by multiple family members one-by-one, leads to her total immersion and dependence on her environment, culminating in her becoming an expert on the marshes and their importance to the world.
The author’s descriptions of the world where Kya lived are both beautiful and heartbreaking. The narration flows like the poetry Kya often quotes throughout the story. While the story weaves backward and forward through time, the author slowly moves focus from 1952, when Kya is first abandoned, to 1970, where her fate will be decided in a court of law.
Along the way, Kya faces prejudice, hardships, and loneliness, but ultimately finds peace in her surroundings and love of friends and recovered family. Looked down upon by the local population because of her seclusion and poverty, she is labelled “The Marsh Girl,” a figure of scorn and ugly rumors.
Her perception by the locals as an outsider, even a savage, is in part what leads the local sheriff and the town in general hold her responsible for the death of a local celebrity, and try her for murder based on the most circumstantial evidence. Luckily, Kya has a few true friends and honorable people in her corner, who seek the truth and stay beside her till the end.
I truly enjoyed this story. It covers so much, in terms of plot and time, and includes several unexpected twists. While there are plenty of stories where children survive alone in the wild, few evolve to a point where the characters are able to cast social commentary on the behavior of a small town, or reach the heights of becoming published authors. Kya is truly extraordinary, and the life she leads is exemplary, all the more so because of everything she goes through.
Saying that, I was astounded at the direction the author took in the last chapter, the very last page, that through everything I thought about the book and the characters into an entirely new light- I really didn’t want to believe the ending. This ending is the sole reason I give this book four stars; perhaps that seems unfair, but the last twist seems completely out of sync with everything I’d read up to that point. Still, this is a very good book that I’d recommend to many readers, of mysteries, survival stories, and stories about strong female characters.