[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for both the film and the novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing.”]
With a simple plot attempting to harken back to the central court case of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Delia Owens’ 2018 novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” became a bestseller and caught the attention of mega-producer Reese Witherspoon, who scooped up the adaptation rights under her Hello Sunshine production banner.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” centers on Kya Clark, derisively referred to by her community as “Marsh Girl,” who was left to fend for herself along the North Carolina coast as a young girl. Upon becoming a teenager and being romantically involved with two men from town, Kya finds herself in the center of a murder trial in 1969 after one of her beaus is found dead following an attempted assault.
The Sony film, opening on July 15, stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as the (seemingly) wrongfully-accused Kya; the film is helmed by “First Match” director Olivia Newman with a script by “Beasts of the Southern Wild” co-writer Lucy Alibar. Taylor Swift even penned the original song “Carolina” for the film’s closing credits sequence. David Strathairn, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, and Ahna O’Reilly also star.
Yet even after the millions of copies “Crawdads” sold and four years after its release, the film is now drawing controversy, including ties to a real-life murder case and perpetuating racial stereotypes. Keep reading to find out what exactly is making “Crawdads” fans sing a different tune.
Delia Owens Is Linked to the 1995 Death of an African Poacher
Author Delia Owens has been at the center of a 27-year-old murder case involving her now-estranged husband, Mark Owens. The couple were featured in the ABC News show “Turning Point” on March 30, 1996. The episode, titled “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story,” focused on the Owens’ voyage to Zambia on a mission to save elephants from poachers. The Owens had already penned “Cry of the Kalahari” about their experience as lion conservationists in Botswana. The “Turning Point” segment centered on the Owens’ time in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park, as explained in their follow-up book, “The Eye of the Elephant.”
However, the special turns into what The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg categorizes in a new article as a “snuff film.” ABC producers filmed the murder of an alleged poacher who was executed after already having been shot at least once. The video references the man as a “trespasser” but no other information is provided.
The broadcast led to a Zambian police investigation, and Mark Owens’ involvement with a corps of game scouts led to a “militarized” takeover of the 2,400-square-mile national park. Mark is also accused of leading airborne raids against suspected poaching camps. His son from his first marriage, Christopher Owens, “frequently beat the game scouts as a form of discipline,” as Goldberg issued in an investigative report. Mark’s attornies denied any beatings of prisoners. However, a professional, government-licensed hunter came forward with a threatening fax said to be from Mark confirming he killed two poachers via air strikes and was “just getting warmed up.”
Mark concluded the letter with, “Anything you can do to help keep our anti-poaching efforts alive in your area will, I guarantee, pay big dividends for your safari business, and very soon. On that note, would it be possible for you to bring back as much ammo as you can: 12 gauge 00B, 30.06, 300, 7.62 short (AK), and some cracker shells (for pest control)?”
Goldberg penned the 2010 New Yorker article “The Hunted” that additionally included an interview with ABC “Turning Point” cameraman Chris Everson, who alleged it was Christopher Owens who fired the shots that killed the suspected poacher, resulting in the murder captured in the ABC episode. The body was dropped in a nearby lagoon via helicopter.
The Zambian authorities are still investigating the 1995 killing, with Mark, Christopher, and Delia Owens currently wanted for questioning. “There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia,” director of public prosecutions Lillian Shawa-Siyuni said. “They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens.”
Delia Owens Has Denied Any Wrongdoing, While Her Debut Novel Includes a Murder Trial
Delia Owens told Goldberg for The New Yorker piece that she didn’t “know anything” about the killing of a suspected poacher. She shared that Christopher Owens “wasn’t there” at the time of the death, but that “we don’t even know where that event took place.”
Owens added in reference to the faxed letter, “Why don’t you understand that we’re good people? We were just trying to help.”
The New York Times interviewed author Delia Owens about her novel’s surprising success. The article cited, “Though the story is invented, Ms. Owens said she drew on her experience living in the wilderness, cut off from society. ‘It’s about trying to make it in a wild place,’ she said.”
Michele K. Short
Owens shared her connection with fictional character Kya when asked about the controversy around her alleged involvement in the 1995 killing. Owens said, “It’s painful to have that come up, but it’s what Kya had to deal with, name calling. You just have to put your head up or down, or whichever, you have to keep going and be strong. I’ve been charged by elephants before.”
Like Kya, Owens also studied zoology at the University of Georgia before earning her doctorate in animal behavior from the University of California, Davis.
Atlantic editor Goldberg also drew comparisons to the real-life case when reading “Crawdads,” albeit in a different way.
“I was surprised that its themes so obviously echoed aspects of Delia Owens’s life in Zambia,” Goldberg wrote. “‘Crawdads’ is the story of a girl in 1950s North Carolina who, through a series of improbable events, is forced to raise herself in an isolated swamp. Kya Clark, the protagonist, is, like Delia, a naturalist and loner, who, for reasons too involved to explain here (however: spoiler alert), commits what is described as a righteously motivated murder of a caddish local big shot, Chase Andrews.”
Goldberg noted that the jailhouse cat whom Kya befriends while awaiting trial is named after a Zambian man, Sunday Justice, who once worked in the Owens’ camp as a cook. And “Crawdads” ends with Kya getting away with murder.
The Novel Has Been Slammed for Its Portrayal of Black Characters
The two central Black characters in the storyline, shopkeeper Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, are akin to surrogate parents to abandoned Kya. Yet their dialogue is written phonetically, with book critics calling out the racial stereotypes behind the depictions of both characters. Jumpin’ is played by Sterling Macer, Jr. while Michael Hyatt is Mabel.
Slate addressed the “‘Gone with the Wind’–style dialect” used in the novel, but chalked it up to Owens being 70 years old before noting the betrayal of a “profound racial and historical ignorance.”
Owens’ own history growing up in Georgia and subsequent decade-plus spent living in Africa does factor into the racist, colonizing singular perspective. The Owens Foundation website refers to Africa as “the Dark Continent” and Delia and Mark Owens’ book “Secrets of the Savanna” calls for human population control across the continent.
IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote in his review of the film, in theaters July 15, that “if Jumpin’ and Mabel still betray the career-long criticism that Owens tends to infantilize her Black characters, Macer and Hyatt ground their roles in a quiet dignity that pushes back against how they may have been written on the page.”
Now it’s just a waiting game until the Owens are part of a miniseries all their own.