I recently read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, a beautiful coming-of-age story about a young girl who grows up in a North Carolina marsh. When Kya is only seven years-old, her mother leaves without even saying goodbye, soon followed by all of Kya’s siblings, leaving her alone with an abusive and alcoholic father. But within a few years, even her father takes off. Shunned by most of the people in town, Kya spends her days learning to fend for herself, collecting rare shells and feathers, and feeding the gulls — her only real friends.
This book ran me through a gamut of emotions. Anger, hope, admiration, frustration, sorrow, joy. One question I kept circling back to was how can a mother abandon her children? (And just to be clear, I’m not talking about adoption here.) As a mother myself, I can’t imagine a single scenario where I would willingly leave my children, never to see them again. The thought alone breaks my heart.
Towards the end of the novel, you find out a little more about Kya’s mom, information that helps the reader empathize a little with the character. To understand her decision more, even if you still disagree.
Life is never black and white. Situations often have a thousand shades of gray. As a writer, it’s my job to see all of those shades. To understand a character’s motivations, even if that character is more Ted Bundy than Mother Teresa.
As in Where the Crawdads Sing, my novel explores the fallout from a mother leaving her child behind. Although the circumstances are very different, Crawdads’ Kya and my character Willow both struggle with reconciling their inherent love for their mothers with the pain and questions of being abandoned.
In The Words We Hold Deep, I write from three perspectives: Willow, her mother Evie, and her grandmother Bea (who raises Willow from the age of three). I decided on this format so that the reader can see all sides of the story. I felt that if I wrote solely from Willow’s point of view, the whole story wouldn’t be told. It would be like a trial where only the prosecution gets to present its side. Evie would automatically be convicted.
And many would say that is what Evie deserves for leaving her child. As a society, we are quick to judge. Especially in today’s social media-led world. But what would happen if we stop and listen to each other? If we didn’t write people off for being on the opposite side of the political spectrum or living on the opposite side of town? What would happen if we sought out our commonalities instead of our differences? What if we forgave each other for mistakes and offered support in times of need? Perhaps Kya would have been taken in by a loving family instead of treated like a piece of trash. Perhaps Willow would have grown up feeling loved rather than abandoned. Perhaps our world would be a better place.
That’s what I love so much about books. When you have an inside look at a character, when you can see them for who they really are, you start to understand what makes them tick. Why they make the decisions they do. And that skill of understanding, of empathy, translates to real life. So do us all a favor, and gift novels to all your friends and family this Christmas. A little break from technology is always good anyway.