The opening of Where the Crawdads Sing, the best-selling novel that has been adapted into a newly released film, details a murder scene. A body lies in the marshes of North Carolina, and readers don’t yet know how it got there. But in the book, author Delia Owens writes: “A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin.”
Set in mid-century North Carolina, Crawdads tells the harrowing story of Kya Clark, who was abandoned by her family as a child and is now surviving solo in the wild. Known by suspecting locals as Marsh Girl, as an adult woman, Kya is accused of murdering Chase Andrews—the aforementioned body in the marsh, who was also her ex-lover. The story’s latter half devolves into a courtroom drama in which Kya’s innocence is defended. Although a jury acquits her of the crime, decades later it’s revealed that she did in fact commit the killing—an act justified, in Owens’s framing, by the fact that Chase attempted to rape Kya days before.
Perhaps even more shocking than that twist ending is the real-life killing Owens herself may have been entangled in decades ago while residing in Zambia, as thoroughly reported in a 2010 New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Goldberg, and then reexamined in 2019 by Slate’s Laura Miller. Owens, her ex-husband Mark, and her stepson Christopher are all still wanted for questioning in the killing of an alleged poacher, Goldberg reported for The Atlantic earlier this week.
That sordid episode hasn’t stopped Owens’s debut novel from selling more than 15 million copies to date, becoming the best-selling adult title in 2019, and smashing the record for most weeks spent on The New York Times best-seller list. “Crawdad” even made one of Merriam-Webster’s top 10 words of that year after searches for the term increased by 1,200%. Now, a movie adaptation produced by Reese Witherspoon (who named Crawdads her Hello Sunshine book club pick in September 2018) and featuring an original song by Taylor Swift hits theaters with this tagline: “Secrets are buried just beneath the surface.”
No charges have been brought in this case, including against the Owenses; through their lawyers, Mark and Chris have denied any wrongdoing or involvement in the killing, reports Goldberg. Delia previously denied involvement and has said that she was never accused of any wrongdoing. ABC did not respond to a request for comment from Vanity Fair, and a representative for Delia had no comment. Still, the ways in which Crawdads echoes details from the case are unsettling. Goldberg had pinpointed that, telling Miller in 2019 that he “found it strange and uncomfortable to be reading the story of a Southern loner, a noble naturalist, who gets away with what is described as a righteously motivated murder in the remote wild.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film adaptation seems eager to distance itself from this meta story. When Time magazine asked the movie’s screenwriter, Lucy Alibar, about Delia’s possible connection to the Zambia killing, Alibar said she was not familiar with the controversy. After the interview with Alibar, the outlet reported, the film’s distributor canceled previously scheduled interviews with Delia Owens, Witherspoon, director Olivia Newman, and star Daisy Edgar-Jones.