Where the Crawdads Sing Controversy Behind Delia Owens’ Book

ItShe had the perfect recipe for a Cinderella-style publishing story. Reese Witherspoon selected her novel club to select her coming-of age thriller, which was made into a feature-length film. After Delia Owens published The Crawdads sing Wherever the Crawdads AreThe summer 2018 saw a lot of interest for Kya. A young girl abandoned by her family and forced to raise herself in North Carolina’s marshlands, Kya is later accused of the grisly murder of an innocent teenager. The movie, produced by Witherspoon with Owens’ involvement and directed by Olivia Newman, is set to premiere on July 15. Witherspoon said Vanity Fair in March that the novel “is a love letter to growing up in the South.”

But Owens’ runaway success belies an ugly history—one that has not only cast a shadow on her life in the literary spotlight, but also predated it. As was thoroughly documented in Jeffrey Goldberg’s nearly 20,000-word exposé for the New YorkerLaura Miller provided details for the 2010 edition. Slate in 2019, Owens’ own past includes an unsolved murder and subsequent scrutiny—just like Kya’s present.

ABC debuted an ABC special in 1996 that focused on Owens’ husband Mark Owens at the time and tragic events in Zambia. They were conservationists. The special, “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story,” captured escalating tensions between the couple and poachers. The episode featured an incident in which an alleged poacher was killed and shot live on-camera. The cameraman who filmed the incident told Goldberg that he believed Owens’ stepson Christopher Owens committed the murder. In 2010, the author stated to Goldberg that Christopher Owens was her stepson at the time of shooting. (A representative for the author did not respond to a request for comment; a representative for Sony, the film’s distributor, canceled scheduled interviews with Owens, Witherspoon, Newton, and star Daisy Edgar-Jones after an interview with screenwriter Lucy Alibar in which TIME asked about Owens and the controversy surrounding the Zambia murder. Alibar stated that she wasn’t familiar with the controversy.

In Miller’s SlateAn article with a new Atlantic piece by Goldberg, published this week, both journalists drew comparisons between the author’s personal story and the story told in the book. “Having her heroine stand accused of murder echoes the Owens’ Zambian experience and the subsequent ordeal of becoming the subject of a 18,000-word exposé in a prominent magazine,” Miller wrote.

For his July 11 piece, Goldberg spoke to Zambia’s director of public prosecutions, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, who confirmed that Mark, Delia, and Christopher Owens are still wanted for questioning. “There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia,” Siyuni told Goldberg. “They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens.”

Here’s what to know about Owens, her career before her hit novel, and the controversy that surrounds The Crawdads sing Wherever the Crawdads Are.

Delia Owens’ career before Crawdads

Owens is a natural lover like Kya, her character. Owens studied Zoology at Georgia University and has a Doctorate in Animal Behavior, University of California Davis. Her 1984 nonfiction book, “The Other Side of the Fence”, was published with Mark Owens. The Kalahari’s cry. Their seven-year experience living in Kalahari Desert in 1974, when they moved there to learn more about brown hyenas. John Burroughs medal for Best Natural History Book was won by the Owenses. They were praised for their observations on how it felt to be surrounded with animals.

They went on to publish two additional books about their experiences in Africa’s wilderness. The Eye of the ElephantPublication date: 1992 Secrets to the SavannaPublished in 2006. The couple spent their honeymoon abroad and became active in anti-poaching efforts. They created the North Luangwa Conservation Project. The aim of the project, according to the website for the couple’s foundation, the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, was to “rehabilitate and conserve the 2,400 square-mile North Luangwa National Park of Zambia” in response to the soaring number of elephants and rhinoceroses that were being killed by poachers in the area. In 1996, the couple returned to America and focused their efforts on domestic conservation of grizzly bears.

A 2019 newsletter for the Owens foundation noted that Delia Owens would be taking a “step back” from the organization.

Crawdads’ unexpected success story

Delia Owens’ debut novel was published in summer 2018 The Crawdads sing Wherever the Crawdads Are. Publisher Putnam originally printed a modest 28,000 copies; no one anticipated the runaway hit the novel would become, aided by its selection as the September 2018 Reese’s Book Club pick.

Crawdads It was an established fixture in books clubs all over the country and New York. TimesIt was reported that the book had been selling more printed copies by 2019’s end than any other adult publication that year. This beat out the new releases from Margaret Atwood, Stephen King and others. The president of Codex Group book audience research company, Peter Hildick Smith, spoke to the Times that the novel had “defied the new laws of gravity.”

The company was founded in its inaugural year. The Crawdads sing Wherever the Crawdads AreAccording to Nielsen, the book was sold over 1.1 million times. Publisher’s Weekly. It has now been more than 12 million since it was released four years ago. The momentum of the book hasn’t slowed down. Last December, the book landed on the New York Public Library’s Top 10 Checkouts of 2021. And on TikTok, the popularity of #BookTok content is driving a new audience to the novel—the hashtag #wherethecrawdadssing has garnered over 29 million views on the app. Today the New York Times Bestsellers List still includes the book. Times It is the best-selling list and has been there for over 167 weeks.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the book

Just as in 2019, Crawdads was becoming a true sensation, journalist Laura Miller revisited the controversial aspects of Owens’ past for Slate In a viral story. In the piece, Miller offered a comprehensive look at Owens and her former husband’s activities in Zambia, where they worked for several years. “What most of Crawdads’ fans don’t know,” Miller wrote, “is that Delia and Mark Owens have been advised never to return to one of the African nations where they once lived and worked, Zambia, because they are wanted for questioning in a murder that took place there decades ago.” Miller referenced Goldberg’s 2010 piece, where he wrote that “the American Embassy warned the Owenses not to enter Zambia until the controversy was resolved.”

The tragedy took place in 1995 and was captured by an ABC film crew that was following the Owenses for a documentary originally intended to be about the couple’s conservationist efforts. This footage was then used to create the documentary. It’s time to turn the page special “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story.” In the special, an unidentified man—referred to in the episodes as a “suspected poacher”—is shot at by a person whose face is blurred. His body remains still as more shots are taken.

In 1996 after the broadcast, the Zambian government initiated a criminal investigation. The remains of the body were never located. A cameraman claimed that the author’s stepson, Christopher Owens, was the one who fired the gun. Delia Owens, however, has denied the claim and stated that Christopher wasn’t present on the scene. “People say Chris did this because they got confused, because the cameraman was named Chris, too,” Owens told Goldberg for his 2010 New Yorker piece.

They have never been charged. His most recent Atlantic piece, Goldberg wrote that he spoke to Zambian police officials who were “keen to interrogate Mark and Christopher Owens, but also believe that Delia Owens should be interrogated as a possible witness, co-conspirator, and accessory to felony crimes.”

Delia and Mark Owens at the North Luangwa National Park, Zambia, Sept. 1990

William Campbell—Corbis/Getty Images

In his 2010 piece, Goldberg also covered the complicated relationships the Owenses had with local scouts and poachers, and noted that the couple’s written works “on occasion convey archaic ideas about Africans.” Miller drew a parallel between that observation and how Owens depicted Black characters in Crawdads, referencing a scene in which Jumpin’, one of the few characters who shows Kya any kindness, wants to notify the police after he sees that she has been assaulted. “The idea that any Black man living in the rural South during the early ’60s would seriously consider reporting to local law enforcement the attempted rape of a white woman by the son of a prominent white family is ludicrous,” Miller wrote.

Owens distanced herself strongly from the murder in Zambia and has not discussed it with the media. She spoke to the New York Times in 2019. Times The shooting was not her involvement. “It’s painful to have that come up, but it’s what Kya had to deal with, name calling,” she said.

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The film is subject to backlash

Creative team behind this Crawdads movie has not publicly acknowledged the controversy, which again became a hot topic when Taylor Swift announced in March that she wrote a song for the film called “Carolina.” The singer wrote in an Instagram post that she was a fan of the book and “wanted to create something haunting and ethereal to match this mesmerizing story.”

Buzzfeed News reported that Swift’s involvement in the movie led several social media users to reflect on the artist’s history of white feminism, with one user creating a viral TikTok video that started a larger conversation about Swift, Reese Witherspoon, and their involvement with the film.

Learn More: Here are 46 of the Most Excited Movies for Summer 2022

The film’s release is imminent and critics have begun to address the issue head-on. “That Owens—already well-known before the novel—has managed to build an even more successful career despite details of her past resurfacing is bewildering,” Lovia Gyarkye wrote in her review for the Hollywood Reporter. “For many people, The Crawdads sing Wherever the Crawdads Are struck an emotional chord, but it’s worth considering what one has to ignore in order to get there.” In Indiewire, David Ehrlich opined that “we may never know the full truth behind Delia Owens’ checkered past as a conservationist—which almost certainly seem [sic] to include a militant, white savior-minded approach to policing Zambian wildlife preserves, and may also extend to being a ‘co-conspirator and accessory’ to murder.” And for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “The Crawdads sing Wherever the Crawdads Are takes on some sinister dimensions—it would be easier to separate the film from its source were the film a full-bodied artistic expression all its own.”

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