D.G. Martin: Crawdads — the African connection

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 18, 2022

Was “Where the Crawdads Sing” set in North Carolina–as both the book and movie assert — and where, according to her publisher, the author Delia Owens now lives?

Or in Georgia where Owens grew up?

Or Louisiana where the film was made?

Or in the African country of Zambia where Owens and her former husband are wanted for questioning in connection with an investigation of a death almost 30 years ago?

The bestselling book has sold more than 15 million copies and the film opened July 15 with domestic gross ticket sales of almost $70 million.

The Crawdads story is summarized by Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic in the magazine’s July edition.  It is, he writes, about “a girl in 1950s North Carolina who, through a series of improbable events, is forced to raise herself in an isolated swamp. Kya Clark, the protagonist, is, like Delia, a naturalist and loner” and is accused of “the murder of a caddish local bigshot, Chase Andrews.”

Was North Carolina the real setting Owens had in mind for Kya’s story?

The lands and waters described in Owens’ book fit the Georgia coastal areas better than North Carolina’s coast. Also, many North Carolina readers and moviegoers were surprised at the idea that Asheville, as described in the book and movie, was just a short drive from Kya’s coastal marsh.

Something must be amiss.

The Crawdads moviemakers chose Louisiana and its marshes to film the movie version of Kya’s story.

But Goldberg, The Atlantic editor, thinks that Owens found Kya through her own experiences, not in North Carolina or Georgia or Louisiana, but rather in Africa. In an April 5, 2010, New Yorker article titled “The Hunted: Did American conservationists in Africa go too far?” Goldberg described how Delia and her then husband Mark, “two graduate students in biology at the University of Georgia, were seized by the idea of resettling in remotest Africa.

“When they arrived in January 1974, Delia, the daughter of a Georgia trucking executive, was twenty-four years old. Mark, who grew up on a farm west of Toledo, Ohio, was twenty-nine, the divorced father of a four-year-old boy named Christopher.”

Operating first in Botswana and then in Zambia, “Despite penury, loneliness, and drought, they established a viable research station” and learned how to gain the trust of the animals and to work funding sources. They were determined to protect the animals from poachers.

Relations with local authorities were often tense.

According to Goldberg, Mark “had gradually come to command a corps of game scouts in North Luangwa, outside of Zambian-government oversight, by buying their loyalty through the provision of weapons, boots, and money; that they had militarized the 2,400-square-mile park (Delia wrote in one of their books that Mark created a special unit of scouts who would earn new guns, jungle knives, binoculars, and compasses for standout performance); that Mark Owens had led airborne raids against suspected poaching camps; that Mark’s adult son from his first marriage, Christopher Owens, had been placed in charge of training the game scouts in hand-to-hand combat; and that Christopher Owens frequently beat the game scouts as a form of discipline.”

In 1996, ABC news aired a documentary about Mark and Delia and their work, including the killing of an alleged poacher. Goldberg writes that Zambian officials told him that “Mark, Delia, and Christopher Owens are still wanted for questioning related to the killing of the alleged poacher, as well as other possible criminal activities.”

Like Kya, Delia Owens has had to deal with an overhang of possible criminal charges.

Goldberg writes that he was surprised that the book’s themes “so obviously echoed aspects of Delia Owens’s life in Zambia.”

So, if we want to visit the place where Kya’s story developed, perhaps we should go not to the marshes of North Carolina, Georgia, or Louisiana, but to the plains and forests of Zambia.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.

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