In 2019 two scientists wrote novels. Even more interesting is the fact that they were written by women scientists. While scientists are known for collecting data and writing informative and research-based papers, it isn’t often that you find one that takes that data and uses it to speak so powerfully about the human condition. Both stories are a fascinating look at the way human nature emulates the nature of our environment through the lives of insects and birds. Both books beg the question of our humanity and our connection to the micro-relationships of the natural world.
It is noteworthy that while experts in their field, these women authors are not defined by only their expertise but use their knowledge to cross literary genres. They each move from the often cold and clinical scientific realm to a prose that sometimes lacks scientific authentication to create a unique voice. Merging scientific fact with fiction creates a refreshing genuine voice for the reader that speaks a truth about our basic instincts.
Kya Clark, often known as Marsh Girl, has lived in the swamp all her life alone and often lonely until a murder in the swamp brings the eyes of the whole community. When Chase Andrews is found dead, people start questioning Kya’s connection and whether this wild beautiful girl is to blame. Even Kya knows that she has been changed by the seclusion and remoteness of the swamp.
“She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would.”— Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Owens explores the dynamics of families and relationships through Kya and the marsh. Kya’s family has abandoned her one by one. Her mother is the hardest and most unexplained loss. Kya spends many years mourning this loss and trying to understand it. The reader will feel Kya’s desperation and determination in her wary attempts to connect and be part of a human relationship; experiencing hurt and returning time and time again back to the comfort of the marsh.
“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”–Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
This isn’t just a haunting tale of love and murder but a story of our natural instincts and how we become not just human but how that humanity informs our ideas of right and wrong. It explores the notions of survival versus life and living. Kya has few teachers in this and yet there are those that look beyond the wild to see her heart. Kya’s teacher is the marsh and Owen uses her knowledge to show us how both science and art create the most complete and beautiful picture.
“Her collections matured, categorized methodically by order, genus, and species; by age according to bone wear; by size in millimeters of feathers; or by the fragile hues of greens. The science and art entwined in each other’s strengths; the colors, the light, the species, the life; weaving a masterpiece of knowledge and beauty that filled every corner of her shack. Her world, She grew with them–the trunk of the vine–alone, but holding all the wonders together.”–Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah is set in rural Illinois and makes comparisons about nesting birds and the relationships between an ornithologist, a recluse egg salesman and a young mysterious girl.
Joanna Teale spends long and tiring days studying the nesting birds of rural Illinois. She works herself weary so as not to dwell on the recent death of her mother from cancer. She has little time for anything else and thus finds herself in a sticky situation when a young girl, Ursa, appears at her cabin claiming to be an alien who has come to earth to study humans. Joanna enlists the help of her neighbor and recluse, Gabriel Nash. Together they fall in love with this strange little girl while trying to find out where she came from and how to help her.
Vanderah uses nesting birds and their habits to help explore the dynamics of Joanna’s grief and Gabriel’s anxiety. Both characters are afraid of leaving the protective nests they have built for themselves. It is only when Ursa, a girl with her own mysterious past, makes them choose comfort or a chance of something bigger than themselves. Like Owens, Vanderah emphasizes the connection to the natural world.
“Maybe it has something to do with how they can turn their backs on the comforts of society for long periods of time. But it’s not just that they can forgo society, it’s more like they need to. For people like that, the natural world is vital, a spiritual experience.”— Glendy Vanderah, Where the Forest Meets the Stars
Ursa speaks of coming from the stars and viewing the earth as a being, not of the earth. It is interesting how Vanderah uses this analogy to speak to issues of grief, anxiety, and trauma that both her characters and we, as human beings, face,
Ursa hiding in the stars, Jo and Gabriel separating themselves from human contact; each character creating a way to be in the world but not of it. They are all viewing life and their natural surroundings like scientists, disconnected. It is only when they are forced together that they themselves become part of the living.
Like Owens, Vanderah speaks to the connection of our natural world and the art we make. In her book, she writes, “Art is supposed to represent how you see the world, not exactly copy it,” inspiring us all to find the beauty and our place in the complex weaving of nature and life itself.
– Review by Catherine, Main Library