Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

The Marsh

The marsh defines Kya’s life, providing solace, sustenance, and inspiration. After Kya’s family leaves her, Owens writes that “the marsh became her mother,” articulating the depth of Kya’s reliance on and love for the land and water surrounding her shack. She learns to love the marsh like family, celebrating her birthday with the gulls that live near her, letting the sounds of the land and water lull her to sleep at night. She also learns to use the marsh for survival, digging mussels from its banks to make money, hiding in its undergrowth to evade danger, fishing from its waters to feed herself. Kya eventually builds her life’s work out of her loving watercolors and precise observations of the marsh. Kya is at one with the marsh, a creature of it, and it defines her world almost entirely. When she ventures away from it, she finds the world outside the marsh bewildering, unnatural, and frightening. In the town, which offers a stark contrast to the marsh, Kya is known as “The Marsh Girl,” which is initially an epithet, meant to highlight the ways in which she is dirty and different. But, by the end of her life, it becomes an honorific, one that Tate inscribes on her tombstone, acknowledging that her identity is intertwined with the land she loved. 


In poetry, Kya finds language for the emotions and experiences that are otherwise unsayable. Throughout the novel, Kya quotes poetry in moments when she experiences profoundly beautiful or profoundly painful events, such as when she discovers Chase is engaged or when she is imprisoned for his murder. Poetry serves as a way to navigate silence when everyday language fails her. She dies without anyone knowing that she writes and publishes poetry, that she is Amanda Hamilton, suggesting that for Kya, poetry is a secret language, too. In the same way that she hid in the bushes to watch other girls have the kind of friendships she pined for, she also hid behind her pseudonym, telegraphing her longing out into the world, in secret and alone. It is also through poetry that Kya obliquely confesses to Chase’s murder, and it is through poetry, then, that Tate is able to know her fully, that she stands bare to him, no longer hiding. 

Natural Sciences

Throughout the novel, the natural sciences serve as a way for Kya and Tate to honor and understand the wild and each other. Kya becomes a scientist quite naturally, instinctively collecting, categorizing, and cataloguing what interests her about her world. This “living history museum of the marsh” is a way for her learn about the natural world that is her home and her companion. The marsh is often dismissed by the townspeople as dirty and worthless. By creating a loving, meticulous catalogue of it, Kya elevates the marsh and its many flora and fauna, and brings awareness of its beauties and intricacies to the wider world through her books. Her collection is also a labor of the deepest love, honoring an unloved place with her attention, much in the same way Tate cares for the abandoned Kya. It is also through their shared scientific tendencies that Kya and Tate first begin to fall in love, communicating not in love letters or poetry, but in their shared language of feathers and seashells.