Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Trauma of Abandonment

Because she is repeatedly abandoned by the people she loves, Kya is skittish and mistrustful of other humans. Throughout her life, she struggles to understand and heal from this chronic abandonment. One of her earliest memories is watching her mother leave when she’s six, and Kya spends much of the next two decades longing for her mother, wondering where she went, and feeling heartbroken that her mother left her. Soon after her mother leaves, Kya looks to the fox to try to understand her mother’s behavior and finds comfort in nature’s rhythms and familiar creatures in her absence. This foreshadows a lifelong relationship with nature that is born out of her family leaving her. She trusts the wilderness more than she trusts other people.  

Though she works hard to connect with her abusive, inconsistent, destructive father, Pa eventually leaves her, too. This sets Kya up for a lifetime of betraying herself in order to establish connections with inconsistent men, and it takes her most of her life to learn to love a man without losing herself to him. When her brother Jodie leaves her, he cautions Kya to hide from people who come looking for her in the marsh. From that point forward, Kya becomes as skilled as a fox at hiding in the marsh, and she eludes everyone who approaches her: her father, the truant officers, and Tate. Mistrustful of other humans who leave and hurt her, she hides even from the boy who has shown her every kindness. This fear turns out to be well-founded when Tate, too, abandons her, in part because she is so skittish and feral after a lifetime of being left alone. This confirms her suspicions that everyone she loves will leave her, and it takes nearly a decade for her to trust Tate again. 

The Power of Self-Reliance

Kya’s life story illustrates the power of self-reliance. Raising herself largely on her own from the age of six on, Kya navigates many adult responsibilities when she is very young. She adapts what she observes from her mother, what she learns from her brother, and what she intuits from nature. Kya teaches herself to cook for herself and her father, buy groceries in town, and even discovers a way to make reliable money selling mussels. Kya teaches herself to navigate her father’s boat and how to feed herself from the land and water out of self-preservation. She also begins the natural collection that will become her life’s work on her own, creating systems of notation and categorization before Tate even teaches her to read. By the time she begins spending time with Tate, Kya is entirely self-reliant when it comes to survival. However, through her interactions with Tate and the love they share, she comes to understand the limits of self-reliance as well and how badly she needs other people. When Kya is at her darkest point, away from the marsh and in a jail cell for Chase’s murder, she reflects that the only safety net she’s ever had is herself. Throughout her life, Kya has not only learned to fend for her physical survival but also to create the kind of emotional and psychological strength that has allowed her to weather tremendous isolation.  

The Companionship of Nature

Kya lives most of her life without a human family, but she finds companionship in nature and sees herself as part of a family of wild creatures. Kya turns to the marsh after her biological family leaves her, connecting with the rhythms of the land and water around her. She listens to the sounds of the insects and the movement of the trees like a mother’s lullaby to help her fall asleep. Instead of celebrating her seventh birthday with parents and siblings, she celebrates with the gulls who will be her companions for her entire life. In the same way that children learn about being human from observing people in their families, Kya spends her life observing nature to understand the world around her. For example, when her mother leaves, one of the first things she thinks of is the fox, who also leaves her kits, and she comes to understand that her mother was too deeply injured to stay with her family, much like the fox. Learning about the intricate habits of alpha and beta males in nature, she understands the behavior of men around her, especially Chase. When she is in jail, her only solace is nature, in the form of the truncated view of the sea through her window and the companionship of Sunday Justice. For Kya, the thought of being separated from the marsh, that is, from the land that is her family, is a fate worse than death. 

The Unnaturalness of Human Society

Kya sees human society as fundamentally disconnected from nature, causing civilization to be confined, artificial, and heartless. Some of Kya’s most traumatic experiences with other people come when she is forced to interact with society. When Chase takes her to Asheville and she sees the world outside the marsh for the first time, she is horrified by the way people have harmed the land. This parallels the way Chase will harm Kya and links the human tendency to destroy nature with Kya’s experiences of human cruelty. When they arrive at the seedy motel, Kya compares the room unfavorably to the beautiful natural spots they usually frequent and says it doesn’t “look like love.” The sexual experience is rushed, empty, and painful, lit by neon instead of moonlight, and she feels a deep, fundamental wrongness. Her experiences in jail and in the courtroom are profoundly painful. Surrounded by cement, metal bars, and by a hard system prejudiced against her, Kya’s only comfort is glimpses of nature out the courtroom window, the pictures of seashells in her book, and the warmth of the cat in her lap. Human society is confusing, punishing, and cold. Filled with longing for the marsh, Kya feels with finality how, as a natural creature, she deeply she doesn’t belong to society.