Los Angeles Times
Delia Owens’ 2018 novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” has sold more than 12 million copies and been adapted into a feature film produced by Reese Witherspoon; starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, the movie opens in theaters this weekend.
Owens’ debut work of fiction is a romantic thriller about an outcast young woman on trial for the murder of a local bigwig in 1960s North Carolina. Hinging on a sympathetic but perhaps unreliable female narrator, it feels like a familiar kind of mystery. But it also sheds some light on an unrelated and seemingly incongruous episode from the author’s own life — Owens’ tumultuous history as a conservationist in the south central African nation of Zambia, where she is currently wanted for questioning in a 1995 murder.
It’s all resurfaced just before the movie’s release thanks to a recent article in the Atlantic by its editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, which updates and doubles down on a piece he wrote for the New Yorker in 2010. Back when Owens was known as the co-writer of a couple of works of nonfiction, Goldberg published an 18,000-word expose on Owens and her now-ex-husband, Mark, revealing that the couple — along with Mark’s son Christopher — were suspected by Zambian authorities of being involved in the killing of an alleged poacher (a murder caught on camera) along with possible other criminal activities.
In his research, Goldberg found that Mark Owens had been in command of a “corps of game scouts” in the country that operated beyond government oversight. He’d managed to “militarize” the North Luangwa National Park by arming the scouts and “buying their loyalty with weapons, boots and money.” He’d also “led raids against suspected poaching camps” and left his son in charge of “training the scouts in hand-to-hand combat.”
Goldberg also obtained a letter in which Mark Owens bragged about the killing of poachers on his watch and added, “We are just getting warmed up.”
In 1996, ABC’s “Turning Point” featured the documentary “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story,” about the couple’s travels to Zambia on a mission to save the elephants. The documentary includes footage of the murder, which according to Goldberg depicts a man being executed while already wounded on the ground. (The footage is no longer available.) The Owenses left Zambia after the broadcast sparked a police investigation, decamping to northern Idaho, where they are now said to be amicably divorced.
Chris Everson, the ABC cameraman who filmed the shooting, told Goldberg it was Christopher Owens who fired the shots in the murder. Biemba Musole, the Zambian police detective leading the investigation, added that Mark Owens and his scouts had placed the body in a cargo net, attached it to his helicopter and dropped it in a nearby lagoon. The body was never recovered.
The investigation has been stalled, however, due to the lack of an extradition treaty between the U.S. and Zambia, along with ABC’s refusal to cooperate.
What does all this have to do with “Where the Crawdads Sing,” apart from cutting into the film’s marketing plan? For one thing, there are the book’s blind spots when it comes to race — including some cringe-worthy dialect spoken by a Black man named Jumpin’, who offers to help Kya, the isolated swamp girl under suspicion. His characterization and speech share a lot with Owens’ depictions in earlier books of some African people as wide-eyed and subliterate.
The critic Laura Miller marked these parallels in a 2019 essay referencing Goldberg’s reporting, noting that one of Goldberg’s sources had summarized the Owenses’ attitude toward Africa as: “Nice continent. Pity about the Africans.” Miller also points to greater thematic similarities. The Kya of “Crawdads” communes with nature and is alienated from humanity; if she committed murder, it was only because she was driven to it by an animalistic survival drive. However involved the Owenses may have been in the murder — and Delia herself was never directly implicated — in setting up their antipoaching militia, they put animals above humans.
In his new Atlantic piece, Goldberg referred back to these and more “deliberate callbacks to Delia’s Zambia experience” in “Crawdads.” Are he and Miller making too much of a few coincidences? As Owens herself said in an interview with Amazon in 2019, “Almost every part of the book has some deeper meaning. There’s a lot of symbolism in this book.”