Kya is the protagonist of the novel, a young girl growing up alone who becomes a woman alienated by society. Kya’s life is defined by isolation, self-reliance, and a deep affinity with the natural world. Kya is abandoned by her entire family when she is a child. As a result, she grows up in stark and punishing circumstances, fending for herself in order to survive. She teaches herself to shop, fish, dig for mussels, tend to her wounds, make money, and more, learning through keen observation of others and through a deep attention to nature. The fact that Kya is able to survive almost entirely alone from the age of six is indicative of her strength, ingenuity, and intuitive power. Though her survival is a marvel, her life is also defined by intense isolation. The people in town shun and ridicule her from a very young age, alienating her from society because of the circumstances of her upbringing and their prejudice against people from the marsh. Even her relationship with Tate, the love of her life, is fractured, marked by an abandonment that causes her to lose the small hope she had for connection with others. 

Because of her history of being mistreated and abandoned, Kya often settles for less than she deserves. This starts early, as she does everything she can to please her abusive father and keep him around because the alternative is to be entirely alone. She repeats this pattern with Chase. Though she doesn’t love Chase, she gets romantically involved with him against her better judgement because the other option is loneliness. As she matures, she begins to inhabit her personal power and to accept that being alone is better than being mistreated. She fights back against Chase’s unwanted advances, fiercely protecting herself and evading his pursuit. She murders him without remorse because she knows he will continually disturb her peace, violate her privacy, and stalk and hunt her until he overpowers her. Kya eventually learns to love another person without losing herself to him, as Tate and Kya have many years together. Kya still protects her solitude, realizing she will always be different and at home alone in the companionship of her marsh.