My grandfather was born Quentin Gerald Brown in 1919 in Blue, Oklahoma, a tiny, relatively unknown town near the border of Texas. From what I understand, when his mother became pregnant out of wedlock, they fled in shame from her family, toward his. From a more urban midwest city to the life of sharecroppers amidst the Dustbowl, where a lifetime of staggering poverty, profound loneliness, and constant hostility awaited.
Had that baby lived, it would have been my grandfather’s older brother. Instead, he was only a memory named Baby Boy Brown, leaving my grandpa their only child. He never really talked about that time of his life very often, but I’ve pieced together snippets and built a story in my imagination from his journals, conversations with my much more talkative grandmother, and a few surviving pictures. It’s a brown and dusty-white world, where he had one outfit for years, his toes pushing holes through his shoes, his legs growing past the hems. He walked to school over many miles toward kids who teased him for how he looked, how little he had, and, presumably, for how dirty he was.
His mother spent most of his childhood simmering in a resentment that eventually hardened into a fierce and violent rage. His father was plagued with a crippling sadness, that we would now call depression, that often led him into a barn that stood to the side of their house with a revolver in his hand, agonizingly contemplating escape as he spun the cylinder.
My grandpa was surrounded by isolation and loneliness so thick that it must have felt like a presence unto itself.
When I started reading Where the Crawdads Sing, it wasn’t long before his image was bleeding into the pages right alongside Kya’s. As her story unfolded, loneliness and self-reliance were the beating heart that bloomed within her and I couldn’t help wondering how my grandfather’s loneliness affected him throughout his life.
In my imagination, he spent his days in that dusty brown world, leaning up against the barn that held his father and the agony within. In my mind, he would have long talks with his could-have-been brother, an invisible confidant during made-up games and household chores and all of that walking. I imagine bright spots of occasional color when he enjoyed a rare treat of corn bread and buttermilk and the times he’d walk to his uncle’s store, which was full of kids and joy and was many miles (and, must have felt like, another world) away.
As I read about Kya, surviving out in that gorgeous, lively marsh, I couldn’t help sketching in my Grandpa Jerry, with his skinny legs and his sad expression, right along side her. I think they would have understood each other, kept each other company, helped ease the loneliness. I think they would have been friends. This book is written so wonderfully, with such brilliant imagery, and I felt so fully present in the marsh with Kya, that it was a comfort just to imagine that younger version of my grandfather right there with her, holding her hand.
It’s a testament to how deeply, profoundly, and beautifully I lost myself in this book that I looked for ways to ease the suffering of a fictional little girl in a book. Different times in history, different areas of the country, different reasons for their loneliness, made-up character who isn’t actually real… but an epic book transcends it all. None of it needs to make sense inside the pages.
There are moments in life when we have the privilege of enjoying something truly great and it’s, well… great. But by virtue of its greatness, it kind of wrecks everything else of its kind. Fresh pizza in Italy— all other pizza is garbage. Hummus in Israel (so I hear)— hummus back home isn’t even worth the calories. Bread in France— why are you even bothering to eat it here? And a book like this— it’ll wreck you for a while. You’ll be cooking dinner, working on your computer, driving your kids around, trying to read another book, but all the while your head’s still with Kya, out where the crawdads sing.