By Lynn Willoughby
This is one of the best novels I have read in some time. The writing is excellent with well developed characters. Nature is as much the protagonist as is Kya, the “Marsh Girl.”
It is set in North Carolina and begins in the early 1950s when Kya’s mother walks down the sandy road, away from the shack where the family lives by the marsh, and is never seen again. Soon her four brothers and sisters leave too. Six year old Kya is left alone with her drunken and abusive father. She spends most of her time hiding in the the trees and marsh grasses.
Obviously this is a very grim start, but Kya is a survivor and even at her young age is able to get by digging mussels and eating grits. She asks her father to teach her to fish and drive their small boat and eventually she lives by selling mussels and smoked fish to the black man, Jumpin, where she gets the gas for her boat. He also has a few staples at his ramshackle wharf, and he comes to realize that Kya is alone, his wife Mabel brings some used clothing, starts to teach Kya about cooking and gardening.
While the story line is excellent, what I really loved was Kya observing and teaching herself about the marsh. Her studies of pelicans, egrets, herons, gulls, cranes and raptors was fascinating. Her collections of feathers and shells is remarkable, especially as Kya has been to school exactly one day in her life! There is a huge amount of scientific information in the book. I learned so much about the interdependence of marsh and sea, the life of shellfish, fireflies and katydids. The author is a recognized wildlife scientist. This book was a treat to read. “Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored and protected her when no one else would.” Her lack of human contact often haunted and saddened Kya. She had never been able to give anyone a gift, and she knew what it felt like to receive gifts from Jumpin and Mabel.
“Among the bird feathers, insect wings and seed …were the bits and bones of a life. The stones of her stream.” I just really liked this author’s writing and can’t wait for a second novel.
This is a debut novel but Owens has written several books of non-fiction.
Ordinary light is shattered by microscopic prisms in the feathers of humming birds, creating the irridesance of its golden-red throat.