Top Shelf: Educated and Where the Crawdads Sing
I read two books in the month of April, and was struck by some similar threads running through them. It was incidental that I read them back to back; they both just happened to be on my 2021 reading list and were available at our local library when I went looking.
The books I'm referring to are Educated by Tara Westover and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Now, I admit that a lot of this community read these books a few years ago! They have both received numerous awards and made The New York Times Bestseller Lists for months and months. And with good reason. They are compelling and thoughtful books; I found myself mulling over aspects of each well after I finished reading. This, in fact, may be why I noticed the connections between them.
First off, I should note one major difference between them. Educated is non-fiction; it is a personal memoir and the book's content came from the author's journals and memories over two decades. Where the Crawdads Sing is fiction and being adapted for a film produced by Reese Witherspoon.
But the similarities...wow.
Both stories are about young women coming of age amidst challenging circumstances. They are both growing up in different kinds of isolation and "off the grid" of mainstream American life. In Educated, Tara is surrounded by family, but is isolated by lack of formal schooling and access to information. In Crawdads, the main character Kya is quickly abandoned and raises herself, surrounded almost exclusively by wildlife.
In fact, one of the most unique features in both stories is the geography and natural environment. Both main characters are very connected with their surroundings, finding solace and comfort when there is little else to provide that for them. Nature takes on a role as important as any character for both, luring them back to it over and over.
What little human interaction both girls have during their formative years is touched by dysfunction and abuse. With both stories, I wanted to peek ahead and make sure the characters were "okay." There was a sense of foreboding that something terrible was coming for both of them, with specific moments in each book where that fear was pretty gripping.
However, both books had incredible moments of calm and empathy. They both featured people who influenced the main characters with their care and compassion. For Tara, professors made a huge impact on her future and educational growth. For Kya, Jumpin' and his wife, Mabel, kept her safe and nurtured when no one else did. Without these pivotal people, these characters might not have survived some of their most difficult times.
Finally, the theme of education was central. In the memoir, this is clearly of utmost focus. But even in Owens' story, education is ever-present. Neither girl is educated in a traditional sense; they spend a day or less in a school environment during their childhoods. However, by the end of each book, they are both seen as subject matter experts. They have defied all odds by using their natural wits, abilities and interests to become incredibly informed.
I found reading these stories and identifying these connections one of the most literary experiences I've had since graduate school! While transitioning from one compelling book to the next can be difficult, I'm so glad I read them together and was able to connect them. These two would make a wonderful pair for a book club or discussion group, as I'm sure I've only begun to touch on the similarities and links that could be made.