The phrase “literary phenomenon” is used less often than it used to be, but Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing deserves this overheated description. Released in 2018, the novel — a coming-of-age story wrapped in a crime thriller — grossed 4.5 million in its first 18 months. It was the best-selling adult novel of 2019. That would be remarkable even if Crawdads weren’t the debut novel by a zoologist and conservationist approaching her 70th birthday.
The book inevitably became a “great film”. This weekend, Daisy Edgar-Jones and David Strathairn land in a piece of damp Southern Gothic produced by Reese Witherspoon. Despite mediocre reviews, Olivia Newman’s film has already had a strong opening weekend in the United States.
All of this is good news for Owens. But the attention once again evokes uncomfortable memories of a still-controversial death in Africa a quarter of a century ago. The information is already out there.
In 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg published an 18,000-word article in The New Yorker entitled “Did American Conservationists Go Too Far in Africa?”. The story describes the often commendable work that Owens and her then-husband Mark Owens did in Botswana and Zambia. “The Owenses ran clinics, held AIDS prevention workshops and trained traditional midwives,” writes Goldberg of their work in North Luangwa National Park.
More controversial was her involvement in the campaign against the illegal killing of endangered animals. In 1995, an ABC crew made a documentary about the Owens – whose son Christopher was also on the team at the time – which chronicled the killing of a suspected poacher. No hard evidence is offered for the man’s alleged crimes. ABC decides to use the word “intruder”.
Returning to the story for Atlantic this month, Goldberg noted that authorities are still interested. “The country’s Chief Prosecutor, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, has confirmed what officers from the Zambian National Police’s Criminal Investigation Department have told me,” he writes. “Mark, Delia and Christopher Owens are still wanted for questioning in connection with the killing of the suspected poacher and other possible criminal activities in North Luangwa.”
After watching the ABC documentary melodramatically titled Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story, Goldberg visited the national park. By this time the Owenses had left the country. Goldberg went on to list a number of troubling stories about a team of “scouts” that drew a strong backlash from the couple’s attorneys.
“The Owenses’ attorneys denied that Mark directed scouts, said he was not responsible for their actions, and denied that anyone was tied to a stake or beaten,” Goldberg confirms. Delia Owens also firmly denied any responsibility for the killing of the alleged poacher. “We don’t know anything about it,” she said. “The only thing Mark ever did was throw firecrackers out of his plane, but only to scare poachers and not hurt anyone.”
Delia and Mark Owens were already known at the time of the ABC show. Cry of the Kalahari, about her work with lions in Botswana, was a bestseller in the mid-1980s. Other non-fiction books such as “The Eye of the Elephant” and “Secrets of the Savannah” followed. But the meteoric success of Where the Crawdads Sing has taken Delia’s fame to a new level.
It’s not just their increased visibility, however, that has journalists blaming the controversy in Zambia. The novel’s plot offers some unfortunate echoes of the still-unsolved death. Where the Crawdads Sing is about a young girl who, abused and eventually abandoned by her father, grows up as an archetypal “wild child” in the North Carolina swamps. The story begins properly when a young man’s body is found at the base of a fire tower. There’s no real evidence against the protagonist – now a friend of the local fauna – but a campaign of whispers eventually brings her before a judge.
It’s necessary to issue a spoiler alert here for anyone who still intends to read the book (which I didn’t) or see the film (scars are yet to heal). It eventually turns out that the heroine actually killed the man, despite some narrative deception, and has effectively and seemingly relentlessly kept her secret for decades.
When the book was published, Goldberg received a series of confused emails from readers of his then nine-year-old New Yorker article. “I got a copy of Crawdads, and I have to say that I found it strange and distasteful to read the story of a southern maverick, a noble naturalist who gets away with what was supposedly a righteously motivated murder in the remote wilderness,” he said in 2019 the magazine Slate.
None of this does anything to clear up a real-life case that remains shrouded in obscurity. Goldberg’s massive, thoroughly researched article, still available online, raises more questions than can ever be satisfactorily answered. But it’s interesting to note that even in the age of endless social media outrage, the controversy did little to hurt the book’s sales or hurt the film’s promotion. Few novelists would condone such an unlikely development.
Where the Crawdads Sing is generally available Friday
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