By Francine Paino
Past, present, future. Measures of time. The future is uncertain, or at least cannot be seen by the finite minds of wo/mankind, but the past remains a blueprint to build on, to change to make better, providing we don’t try to hide or deny the past. We cannot escape our history—nor should we. Like the gorgeous butterfly that emerges from the shell of a caterpillar, out of ugly facts of history, come two beautiful stories that lift the soul.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, we are invited into different worlds to experience beliefs and customs that we find unacceptable by 21st Century standards.
These fictional characters are intensely real and their stories grab the readers’ heartstrings as we walk alongside them and watch the painful development and evolution of the human soul, at the societal and personal levels.
Both books can be described as beautiful, agonizing, poignant, terrible, heartbreaking, joyous, and a beautiful testament to relationships and the triumph of the human spirit.
Where The Crawdads Sing draws us into a tale of betrayal, abandonment, and murder, through the life of Kya Clark and the backwater residents of Barkley Cove, who view her as “swamp trash” to be shunned, ridiculed and looked down upon.
The story begins with the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews, the townie playboy, and son of a respected Barkley Cove family. It then toggles back to 1952. Six-year-old Kya watches her mother, the last of her dysfunctional family, walk away from their shack, never to return, leaving Kya alone to live with a drunken, physically, and mentally abusive father.
Kya is forced to dig deep and find the strength to make some semblance of a life with him, always afraid that he’d come home drunk, constantly hoping her mother would return. Things seem to improve, but eventually, he leaves too, and Kya is left to survive or die, among the gulls, fish, and wildlife of the swamp.
Considered illiterate swamp trash, Kya is referred to as the Marsh Girl. After spending one humiliating day in school, she vows never to return and successfully evades the town’s truant officers’ half-hearted efforts. Only one man called Jumpin’, the gas station owner and his wife show her any kindnesses, until the day she encounters Tate, a boy who was once her brother’s friend – then her life changes.
Tate befriends her, and it’s through him that she learns to read and write. It’s with Tate that Kya builds her already extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem of the swamp. Over time, Kya’s extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem leads her to success as a published author, thanks to Tate’s encouragement. Her first book brings a royalty of $5,000, a great deal of money to Kya; despite her success, she never dreams of leaving the swamp’s safety, and the townspeople of Barkley Cove never see her as anything other than the “Marsh Girl.”
We live and learn through Kya’s determination and development as she overcomes enormous challenges for seventeen years until the past and present become one. Then Kya becomes the prime suspect in Chase Andrews’s murder and may face the death penalty.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a door to the beauty of the wetland ecosystems, and a window to many 1960s prejudices reflected by a backwater society’s discrimination and refusal to give a person like Kya a chance in life.
Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who writes with the accumulated knowledge of 23 years of experience with animals and environments. In Ms. Owen’s words, Kya’s story shows that “we are forever shaped by the children we once were.”
In Snowflower and the Secret Fan, the lives of two very young girls in the Hunan Province of China, transport us back in time to a country on the other side of the world and immerses us in a different culture.
In 19th Century China, women were considered of little worth and had to be married out. They lived in almost total seclusion, and to make the best marriage contracts, young female children around six had their feet bound, to keep them as small as possible, the goal being five-inch long “golden lilies.”
The story is told through eighty-year-old Lily, who looks back on her life and asks the gods for forgiveness, realizes that the binding altered not only her feet but also her whole character. “By age forty,” she says, “the rigidity of that binding had moved from her golden lilies (tiny feet) to her heart, which held on to injustices and grievances so strongly” that she could no longer forgive those she loved and loved her.
We meet Snow Flower when she and Lily are six-years-old, and about to have their feet bound to make them more desirable. In the superstitious traditions of the time, the matchmaker and the diviner examine Lily and tell her family she is no ordinary child. Lily will have a favorable marriage contract, but she is also worthy of a laotong – a special relationship between girls.
For the Chinese of Hunan, the laotong or “old-sames” link was the strongest of all precious female bonds of friendship between women. It was more rare and formal, requiring a contract. A woman could only have one laotong, and it was unbreakable for life. The matchmaker negotiates a marriage contract for Lily and selects Snow Flower to be Lily’s “old-same.” The girls are taught a secret writing code called nu shu (women’s writing), and as laotong, they write their stories on fans or embroider them on handkerchiefs. It was a salve for their lonely hearts. The laotong understand one another’s souls.
These loveable young girls support one another through the torture of footbinding, they grow into women and marry. Lily’s fortunes change for the better. Snow Flower’s fortunes change for the worse, and still, their special relationship endures. They become good wives and adhere to the expected behaviors of wives and daughters-in-law. They celebrate one another’s sons, for nothing is as crucial for a woman’s standing in the family as bearing sons. As “old-sames,” they share their pain and fear through famine, plague and rebellion, but can their relationship withstand a serious misunderstanding?
This is author Lisa See’s ancestral history. She spares no detail in the horrific footbinding process that deformed millions of little girls’ feet until it was outlawed in 1912. Without rancor, judgment, or shame, she draws the reader in and we share the agony these children endured, sometimes unto death if infections set in when the bones finally break to keep the toes folded under the foot and retard its growth. The physical agony eventually ends, but these women never walk normally again. We watch them sway and find a different balance on stumps, never meant to carry the body’s weight. We meet the older women of their families. We are sad for many who end up with significant disabilities later in life, yet continue to inflict footbinding on the female children because traditions and societal expectations demanded it.
Neither story ignores, covers-up, condemns, or apologizes. Where there were prejudice and slurs, Owens wrote it. Where there was the breaking of bones to the point of destroying the body’s ability to function, Ms. See wrote it.
Although painful to read and admit even as fiction, the characters make us think, admire the strength they discovered in the face of oppression, grieve for their suffering and loss, and celebrate the triumphs of their souls.