If you love great writing and don’t know George Saunders’ work, there are three not-to-be-missed titles I would like to recommend: Tenth of December, a well-reviewed volume of short stories, Lincoln at the Bardo, a Man Booker Prize winning, unique (and I never use this term loosely) work of fiction, and A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, pictured above.
If you want to improve your writing skills, if you want to become a better reader of fiction, if you love the work of classic Russian writers, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is your dream come true. Saunders, who teaches writing Syracuse University, presents a master class in book form. We read seven short stories by Gogol, Chekov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. Each is accompanied by a highly readable essay teaching us how to understand the story’s construction, meaning, and greatness. If this sounds in any way boring, trust me, it’s not.
Upon finishing ASwim in a Pond in the Rain I plan to reread Tenth of December and apply what I have learned from Saunders to his own short stories. Will they stand up to the Russian masters…? No matter. As a reader and a writer, this book has forever enhanced my capacity to “see” a story.
The cover of Where the Crawdads Sing gives the potential reader helpful, as well as misleading, information about the book’s contents. First, the title. The word “Where” clues us in that setting will be important. And it is. One could almost say that the setting, a marshy area on the North Carolina coast, is the main character. The protagonist Kya is known by disdainful locals as “the Marsh Girl” and she truly is shaped by the environment in which she dwells.
The word “Crawdads” establishes the novel as geographically set in the southern United States. Northerners would use the term “crayfish.” Putting a creature in the title hints at the primacy of nature as a theme. As we all know, crawdads by any name do not sing, causing us to wonder if this reference is legend, metaphor, delusion, or allusion. In any case, the title is a bit catchy.
From the back flyleaf we learn that the author has co-authored non-fiction volumes based on work with wildlife in Africa. This is her first work of fiction. She now lives in Idaho, which is a long way from North Carolina marshes. A brief internet search reveals that she grew up in Georgia, and (drumroll) is wanted in Zambia for questioning in relation to the murder of a poacher! Does this in any way inform the plot of this book?
Interestingly, the front cover portrays a female figure paddling a canoe down a tree-lined channel, toward an orange-tinged sky. Note that Kya drives a motorboat, not a canoe. But the painting is pretty.
To assure you that I actually read the book, let’s take a brief gander at the plot. At age 6, Kya is abandoned by her mom and siblings. At age 10, her alcoholic and unpredictable father also departs, after which she (improbably, in my mind) lives alone in an isolated shack and manages to stay alive by what she grows, forages, and catches. Her relationships are with creatures, primarily seagulls. Then she meets Tate, who teaches her to read in such an efficient way that she is soon perusing scientific textbooks. Not surprisingly, she falls for him. He, like her family before him, abandons her. Then she is pursued by Chase (not joking). This also comes to no good. Back to the seagulls.
A mysterious death ensues and our protagonist is mixed up in it. I won’t reveal more. The ending is clearly written to be surprising, which it was, but also left me with…a squeamish feeling.
Where the Crawdads Sing is beloved by many readers. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for a LONG time. Why? My assessment: a pleasant quick read, an appealing setting, a pulls-herself-up-by-the-bootstraps main character, murder, mystery, love, loss, and a sense of loneliness that touches something inside of every human being.