I read all the time, but I don’t always read what everyone else is reading. My book choices bounce from classic horror to edgy YA to quiet middle grade titles to random novels with a cool cover that I saw at Half-Priced Books. I rarely read the MOST POPULAR BOOKS of the moment, those titles that are on everyone’s Goodreads page and every best seller list. If I do read them, it’s often much later, after all the hubbub has died down and I think, “Ok, let’s see what all the fuss was about.” (Often the fuss was right on. Sometimes I disagree with the fuss.)
However, last month, I read two VERY POPULAR BOOKS at the same time—one in print and one on audio—and I was shocked at how similar they were.
The books were Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Educated by Tara Westover.
On the surface, these books are quite different. Where the Crawdads Sing is a fiction novel that is part mystery, set in the 1950s and 60s. The story is about a young woman named Kya, known to locals as “the Marsh Girl,” who grows up alone after her family leaves her, creating a life for herself in an isolated hut on the North Carolina coast. Educated, on the other hand, is a memoir about the author’s life growing up in the 1980s and 90s with her radical survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. Her parents don’t believe in modern medicine and don’t even have birth certificates for their children, who, in the eyes of the government, don’t exist. Despite their obvious differences, the connections between these books were fascinating.
The biggest similarity was that both characters (I’m going to call Tara a character here even though she is a real person) were the youngest child in a large family and neither one went to school. Kya, lured by the promise of a hot lunch, went to school for one day when she was around seven years old, but when the other kids made fun of her for misspelling “dog,” she never went back. Due to her father’s intolerance of public school, Tara never set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen. However, both women were bright, quick learners and became educated through other means, each becoming an expert in their areas.
There is so much more, though, that links these two books. The richness of the setting is one. Both the marshes of the Carolina coast and the rural Idaho mountains were described so vividly, I could see them. When Kya was motoring through the lagoon in her old boat and Tara was working in the junkyard beside her father, I felt like I was there with them. Because of the Westovers’ primitive way of living, even the time periods of the books didn’t seem so far removed. Each time I heard a year mentioned in Educated, I was jolted for a moment at the reminder of how recently these things occurred.
In addition, both characters experience abuse by family members and ostracization from society. Both live in an isolated world of their own or their family’s own making. Both use home remedies to treat injuries, and both retain strong bonds to their family and place of birth despite the negative memories associated with them.
However, each subject matter is written about so differently by the authors. Westover’s concise, pragmatic prose left me breathless with its merciless betrayal of her family’s control over her and the accidents that resulted from her father’s recklessness and mental illness, while Owens’s depiction of Kya’s hardships was softer, more beautiful, blurred at the edges in ways that let the reader understand her heartache and hurt without falling into it.
In the end, I really liked both books and would give each 4.5 stars. In Where the Crawdads Sing, the .5 reduction is due to a couple of writing nitpicks. Although the language was beautiful, I got tired of the sentence fragments. And I loved the ending, but I thought more time needed to pass before the last reveal. I listened to the audio version of Educated, so I couldn’t see the sentences, but the writing seemed flawless, both effortless and precise. In that book, the .5 star reduction was due to the content itself. Tara’s life was hard to read about, and it disturbed me on so many levels. There were horrifying descriptions of injuries and cringe-worthy scenes of manipulation and abuse. The book was excellent, but I can’t say that I “enjoyed” a lot of it.
In conclusion, I strongly recommend both Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Westover’s Educated. The hubbub was spot on for these two. I also recommend reading them back-to-back so you too can enjoy the connections between these oddly similar books. (There were a few more similarities not mentioned here due to spoilers.) If I were you, I’d start with Educated and allow yourself to feel all the shock and frustration and horror of Tara’s childhood (while also, of course, admiring her strength and endurance and brilliance). Then let Where the Crawdads Sing be a soothing balm for your reading soul.