Where the Crawdads sing tells the fictional story of Kya, a girl set off to rise along a North Carolina bayou in the 1950s and 60s. “The Swamp Girl”, as she is known, is reviled and shunned by residents of the neighboring town. In time, Kya is put on trial for murder. Now there’s a movie adapted from the novel by an author with a mysterious past.
It took a wildlife scientist Delia Owens a decade to write Where the Crawdads sing. Her first novel is now on the New York Times bestseller list for 168 weeks (most of that time at the top). Actress Reese Witherspoon loved it so much she added it to his popular book club and produces the new film adaptation.
“It just blew my mind,” Witherspoon said. CBS Sunday morning. “It was like when I was reading Kill a mockingbird or any kind of classic Southern literature. She layers that element of thriller, there’s a murder…”
And murder…real murder in the mid-1990s…is the big elephant in the room. With the release of the film, news has surfaced that Owens, 73, is still wanted for questioning by Zambian authorities as a witness, co-conspirator and possible accomplice in federal crimes. At the time, she and her then-husband Mark were living in Zambia as conservationists, trying to save elephants from poachers.
Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg first wrote about it for the new yorker in 2010, and more recently, Atlantic magazine, of which he is now editor-in-chief. His reporting suggests the Owens set up a brutal operation to pursue anyone who was a threat to the elephant reserve. In fact, an ABC news crew documenting the Owens’ work in 1995 actually filmed the execution of a suspected poacher.
“Poachers’ bodies are often left where they fall, for the animals to eat,” narrator Meredith Viera said on the show. Turning. “Conservation. Morality. Africa.”
You can hear the gunshots, but the unidentified man’s shooter was never seen on camera, a body was never found, and no one has been officially charged with a crime. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, some witnesses implicated Mark Owens and his son Christopher. But the reporter says their lawyers have issued statements denying the murder. He quoted Delia Owens saying she had nothing to do with it.
For months I was told by the film’s publicists that the writer was unavailable for comment. The news therefore continues to hover over the film like Spanish moss on a murky bayou.
Taylor Swift wrote and sang on the film’s soundtracksaying on instagram, she wanted to “create something haunting and ethereal to match this compelling story”. But she faced backlash on social media for her involvement in the film. In an interview, the director and star of the film both told me they knew nothing about this part of Delia Owens’ past, although they did say she had a cameo in the film.
Instead, they talked about how the isolation and resilience of Where the Crawdads sing resonated with readers, especially when the coronavirus pandemic left many feeling lonely.
“There’s this great murder mystery that keeps you turning the pages,” the director realized Olivia Newman said. “There’s this survivalist tale and observation of nature that’s so beautifully articulated by a scientist. There’s this epic romance that offers some escape from some of the harsher realities of our lives. And so I think especially during a pandemic, it was so wonderful to be immersed in that world and that was the hope for the movie. That was the hope for the movie was to create that same kind of world that you didn’t want to leave.
british actress Daisy EdgarJoneswho plays Kya in the film, said she met author Delia Owens when they were filming in the swamps around New Orleans.
“To film in these incredible bayous and marshes with the Spanish moss and the sound of the cicadas, oh, it was absolutely magical,” she said. “We had crazy thunder and lightning storms, and at one point the plateau was flooded. We had alligators along the banks and snake wrestlers. And it was like it was shot of my imagination.”
Edgar-Jones says Delia Owens encouraged her to have fun playing the titular character.
“Kya is a very complex character,” she said. “She’s very strong and resilient. But she’s also a very curious and gentle creature. And I think that kind of mixture of things was something that I found very interesting about her, because she’s complicated like a lot of us.”
The first reviews of Where the Crawdads sing have been mixed. It remains to be seen whether the questions about the author will overshadow the film.
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