When it comes to fiction, I have the reading level of a seventh grader. If there isn’t a picture of a dragon on the front cover, I’m just not interested. So you can imagine what a major stretch it was for me to read Where the Crawdads Sing, the #1 New York Times Best Seller by Delia Owens. A murder mystery, coming of age narrative that Reese Witherspoon has publicly praised.
At the age of six, Kya’s mother leaves, followed by her brother, and then finally her abusive father—leaving her to grow up alone in a shack in the Carolina marshlands. As she grows up into her teenage years and beyond, she experiences two significant romances: Tate and Chase.
Relationship #1 - Tate:
When Tate first meets Kya as a lost little girl, he helps her find the way back home. Tate and Kya develop years of friendship, connecting on their shared love for the marsh, particularly with the wild birds. Tate teaches her how to read and write, to appreciate both science and poetry. He encourages her to be self-sustaining, even to publish a book. Most importantly though, in a passionate exchange where both are eager to give themselves to each other sexually, Tate is able to deny himself for Kya’s good.
Relationship #2 - Chase:
Kya’s heart ruptures when Tate leaves for college and the relationship ends. That’s when Chase steps into the picture. In their first meeting, Chase attempts to take advantage of her, only apologizing when Kya refuses. Kya notices the way Chase looks at her is different from the way Tate ever did, but part of her likes it. She frequently makes excuses for his behavior, like when he makes fun of her interests in the marsh or pressures her for sex. He talks often about marriage with no real commitment. Chase never brings Kya into his world, he hides her from family, friends, and even (spoiler alert) his fiancé. Though also capable of self-denial to a degree, his self-denial is motivated by promise of a future payoff, not in what’s good for Kya. Lastly, Chase uses violence to get what he wants and to maintain the upper hand in the relationship.
Isn’t it amazing how though Kya was never given any moral framework, deep inside she knows something is off about relationship #2? That she is made for more? She’s so lonely. She is so starved for love that she’ll settle. Yet even as she lies to herself, Kya can’t help but distinguish between Tate and Chase, between authentic love and its counterfeit.
St. John Paul II says that the opposite of love is not hate, but use. It’s easy to see how Chase uses Kya, but in our relationships it is much harder to spot when we are being used or using another. I’ve played every part: the user, the one who lets himself be used, and thanks be to God, the one who gives himself in sincere love. Experience has taught me that in mine and every heart there is a battlefield between love and use (or lust), a battle that “is the Lord’s” (1 Sam 17:47) but one we must fight with him.
Of all the birds in the Carolina marshlands, Jesus says not one is forgotten by God, and that you are worth more than all of them (Luke 12:6-7). What if the Father sees our most desperate ache for real love? It’s not enough to know this intellectually. Until our affect (our heart) is convinced of the intellectual truth that God really sees us and really is good, we will always be tempted to grasp for counterfeits like Kya.
The song of the crawdads is the groaning of all creation awaiting redemption (Rom 8:22), awaiting the fullness of life that only God’s love brings. Love & Life. Lust & death. Where there is use and lust, death is always the fruit (Rom 6:23). Where there is authentic love, there is life.