Kya is known as the Marsh Girl. Abandoned by her dysfunctional family in a shack by the water on the North Carolina coastline, she pretty much lives alone after her drunken father never returns one day. She survives digging mussels and catching fish, gathering eggs from the small flock her mother left behind and tending a scanty garden. Wanders the wetlands and communes with nature. Truant officer tries to make her attend school but she adroitly evades people in the marsh. One compassionate black family- very poor themselves- takes pity on her and pays her for the meager catch she offers to sell or exchange for gas (for the boat), gives her clothing and a few supplies. So she does get a little help from the community, but otherwise is very isolated. Most of the townspeople mock or shun her when she does venture into town. Then a boy Tate she occasionally ran into while boating as kids, starts to visit more often as a teenager and teaches her to read. Starts to open up her world- and her heart- until he leaves suddenly for college. Kya is of course hurt at feeling abandoned all over again, but also aches for companionship now- so when she catches the eye of a popular guy in town, lets herself get drawn into a different kind of relationship . . . Years later- this part told in alternating chapters- the popular guy Chase, is found dead under a fire tower in the marsh. Kya becomes the primary suspect for his murder. The final chapters wind up with a courtroom drama- not my favorite kind of story but those scenes weren’t as dull to read as I expected.
I liked most of this book- especially the nature writing and Kya’s connection with the marsh wildlife- but I also had some issues with it that spoiled my enjoyment. Some aspects of the story just did not make a lot of sense or felt unrealistic. I couldn’t believe how fast she learned how to read, and how easily she lost her lowcountry accent. For all of Kya’s isolation, she picked up complex skills and cultural expressions very quickly. (Reminded me of how Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear turned out to be this kind of super woman- teaching herself so many difficult skills while living completely alone). I could have just gone along with that, but there was a point in the middle of the story where she had an argument with Tate during a brief visit he made after college. Things she said in that argument, words thrown in Tate’s face- didn’t sound like the kind of things an isolated, wild, self-taught girl would say. Having never even attended school, having never dated anyone else, having no social context outside of selling mussels and occasionally going to the small convenience store, what would she know about relationships and breakups? From reading a few romance novels? Also after being deserted by her mother and all her older siblings when she was less than ten years old, I would have expected her to have a lot more difficulty confronting or recognizing her own emotions about things. A lot of the conversations she had with the few people close to her, later in the book, looking back on what happened in her early childhood seemed awfully simplistic, and too insightful and levelheaded for someone who had gone through that kind of early trauma. It just didn’t feel real. A lot of the dialog likewise felt awkward to me and the romantic parts of the story trite. Which ended up making it overall a dissatisfying read.
This book actually reminded me a lot of Girl of the Limberlost– it has a similar basic premise- wild girl who spends time alone in nature, becomes something of an expert on local fauna, falls in love with a man later on who is intrigued by her innocence and differences. But I also thought a lot of Lady on the Beach– there’s a story about a woman living in poverty on the edge of the water, surviving partly off the land- and it’s far more realistic about the miseries and struggle that come along with that.