Throughout the novel, Kya struggles to make human connections while surviving in isolation in nature. Abandoned by her family from an early age, Kya learns to find comfort and sustenance from the land and water in the marsh, making a home for herself in stark circumstances. Even so, Kya longs for family, companionship, and love and finds herself often rejected by the townspeople, who consider her dirty and less-than because she lives in the marsh. Though she is just a child, she is teased, ignored, and avoided. Where the town is clean, properly dressed, and obeying the unspoken rules of society, Kya lives very close to the land and appears unruly, frightening, and feral to others. These townspeople also threaten her freedom when she is a child, attempting to force her into schooling, and she learns to hide from them and to protect herself from those who want to impose a restrictive idea of civilization on her.  

Her two romantic relationships with men illustrate Kya’s fundamental struggles with connection, marked by abandonment or abuse. Tate is the love of her life, and they form an early, natural bond that continues to grow with them. They first communicate through nature, and Tate comes to Kya on her own terms, without trying to change her, civilize her, or make her conform to the town’s standards. Tate loves Kya for who she is. However, like her mother who also loved Kya deeply, Tate abandons Kya, leaving her heartbroken and mistrustful. Chase, on the other hand, sees Kya as a rare possession and is fascinated by her wildness, as one might be fascinated by a wild fox. Much like Kya’s father, he doesn’t appreciate who she is or what she needs and constantly underestimates her power and intelligence. Instead, Chase wants to dominate and abuse her and goes to great lengths to try to possess her. The discovery of Chase’s body serves as the novel’s inciting incident, prompting an investigation that leads to Kya as a suspect and providing a framework through which readers view Kya’s life, past and present. 

Kya’s life oscillates between periods of isolation, surviving and communing with nature, and often-thwarted attempts at human contact. When she is young, each person in her family leaves her, and each time they leave, she turns to nature for comfort, teaching, and material survival. When her mother leaves, she thinks of the fox to understand her mother’s actions. When her brother leaves, she celebrates her birthday with the gulls. And when her father leaves, she teaches herself to sell mussels for money. She enjoys a beautiful respite from loneliness with Tate when they are young, and they connect with each other in and through nature. When Tate abandons her, Kya literally places her face in the mud, mourning the loss by giving herself over to the land and water. She also closes her heart, and it is with a closed heart that she begins her relationship with Chase.  

The rising action in the novel is both Kya’s relationship with Chase in the past, and the intensification of Chase’s murder investigation in the present. As Kya and Chase become romantically involved, Kya comes up repeatedly in the murder investigation, and both of these narrative threads emphasize Kya’s alienation from other people. Chase and Kya’s relationship is marbled through with a sense of menace from the beginning, and Kya pushes past her own boundaries because she is so lonely and in need of human contact. Kya is hesitant to take Chase’s hand, but she pushes away her instincts to reject him. Chase becomes both more possessive of Kya and more distant, especially after they have sex for the first time in a seedy motel, emphasizing that the more Kya gives of herself to Chase in her pursuit of human connection, the lonelier she feels. As Chase becomes increasingly like her father, hitting Kya and trying to dominate her, Kya fights back physically. This illustrates her ability to protect herself, foreshadowing Chase’s murder, which is ultimately an act of self-defense against a predator. In the vignettes about the murder investigation, the police and the townspeople seem increasingly intent on pinning the murder on Kya, though much of their evidence is circumstantial. The town that has always rejected Kya now has a reason to try to ostracize her more formally from their community. 

The climax of the story comes when Kya is tried for Chase’s murder. The structure of the novel leads to this point, moving back and forth between Kya’s story and the investigation. At the trial, the two plot lines converge, as all the discoveries of the investigation and Kya’s life itself are on trial. The depth of the town’s prejudice against Kya is revealed, as witness after witness seems to push the boundaries of what’s likely or possible to create an implausible story of Kya’s guilt. However, by the end of her life, Tate learns that, in getting away with Chase’s murder, she pulled off the impossible once again. In the same way she, against all odds, survived alone in the marsh from the age of six, so too does Kya kill the man who hunted her and ultimately get away with his murder. In doing, she also, in a sense, vanquishes her father, the man who abused her mother the way Chase abused Kya. Kya is not only freed from jail, but she lives the rest of her life free from the interference of the town, the abuse of bad men, and the requirement to conform to a society that has repeatedly rejected her. She lives out the rest of her life in relative peace and security, enjoying both Tate’s love and a protected solitude in the marsh.