Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439
Kya grows up largely separate from her siblings. During the 1950s, her impoverished family lives in coastal North Carolina. Domestic conflicts, largely caused by her father’s abusive behavior, lead her mother to take their youngest children and leave home, while Kya and the three oldest siblings are left with their father. Kya never sees her mother again and lives in perpetual fear of her father’s violence. Her existence in an abusive household is likened to that of the minnows in the marsh:
Kya learned from the mistakes of the others, and perhaps more from the minnows, how to live with him. Just keep out of the way, don’t let him see you, dart from sunspots to shadows. Up from the house before he rose, she lived in the woods and water, then padded back into the house to sleep on the porch as close to the marsh as she could get.
Kya develops a deep love for and understanding of her natural environment. As she processes her mother’s absence, Kya comes to understand that the marsh has the nurturing ability that she longs for.
[W]henever 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.
Eventually, this knowledge turns into a career as a nature writer, and Kya’s reputation around Barkley Cove earns her the nickname “The Marsh Girl.” Some of the initial motivation for her writing comes from her friend—and eventual partner—Tate.
After Kya’s brother Jodie grows up, he returns to Barkley Cove to visit his estranged sister. Kya’s resentment over being abandoned has left her distant from the rest of the family. She cannot even remember what her siblings looked like and has no photographs to refer to. From Jodie, Kya learns that their mother had been a painter and spent years painting the children from memory. Jodie brings several of Ma’s oil paintings to show his sister. As they talk, he pulls them out of the back of his pickup truck. One of the paintings shows a young Tate alongside an even younger Kya.
Before him was an astonishingly colorful oil of two children squatting in swirls of green grass and wild flowers. The girl was only a toddler, perhaps three years old, her straight black hair falling over her shoulders. The boy, a bit older, with golden curls, pointed to a monarch butterfly, its black-and-yellow wings spread across a daisy.