Fact or Fiction: The True Story Behind ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens is a novel that has captured the hearts of many readers with its vivid descriptions of nature, its coming-of-age story, and its mystery plot.

Owen’s book has been praised for its vivid descriptions of the natural world and its ability to transport readers to the marshes of North Carolina.

However, some readers have wondered whether the story is based on a true story or inspired by real events.

The Success Story of “Where the Crawdads Sing”

The novel by Delia Owens is a coming-of-age murder mystery that follows the life of a young girl named Kya as she grows up isolated in the marshes of North Carolina.

The book was published in 2018 and quickly became a bestseller, captivating readers with its rich descriptions of the natural world and its poignant portrayal of Kya’s journey.

The plot appealed to a wide audience, as it encompassed a murder mystery, nature writing, romance, and a coming-of-age survival story.

The novel received an early boost from independent booksellers who widely recommended it. Actress Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club and produced a film adaptation via her production company “Hello Sunshine” and 3000 Pictures.

The film was released in July 2022 by Sony Pictures and is considered a commercial success, grossing a net profit of 47 Million USD.

Witherspoon commented on the film’s surprising success, acknowledging that it wasn’t on many people’s radars. She described it as a “return to genuine filmmaking, ” with a heartfelt experience, stunning sets, costumes, and talented actors, evoking a sense of nostalgia for what audiences would want to see during the summer.

“Crawdads'” success defied industry trends, resonating with fans from across the political spectrum in a time of rapid technological advances and constant social media connectivity.

The novel’s sales began to accelerate months after its release, which is unusual in the publishing world.

This visibility, bolstered by word-of-mouth buzz and its position on the best-seller list, set off a self-fulfilling cycle that drove sales and sustained its success.

Putnam, the book’s publisher, had to go back to the printers almost 40 times to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for the book. Additionally, foreign rights have been sold in 41 countries.

The book spent over a year on The New York Times Best Seller list and has been translated into over 40 languages. The novel’s success has made its author, Delia Owens, a household name.

To date, “Crawdads” has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.

The Plot of the Novel

The novel is set in the 1950s and 1960s and follows the story of Kya Clark, who is left alone in a North Carolina marsh after her family abandons her.

Kya, known as the “Marsh Girl” by locals, befriends the Madison couple and Tate Walker, who helps her learn to read and write. Kya’s relationships with Tate and then Chase Andrews, a local athlete, both end in heartbreak.

Kya becomes a successful nature artist and writer, and her life takes a positive turn when her brother Jodie returns. However, when Chase dies under mysterious circumstances, Kya is accused of his murder.

She is found not guilty at the trial, and she goes on to live a fulfilling life with Tate. After her death, Tate discovers that Kya was indeed responsible for Chase’s death but keeps her secret hidden.

The novel explores themes of isolation, prejudice, and the power of nature. It also delves into the complexities of human relationships and the ways in which people can both hurt and heal one another.

The Characters in the Novel

Kya is the protagonist of the novel, and much of the story revolves around her experiences and perspectives. She is a fiercely independent and intelligent young woman who is deeply connected to the natural world around her.

Other important characters in the novel include Tate, a young man who befriends Kya and helps her learn to read and write; Jumpin’ and Mabel, an African American couple who become Kya’s surrogate family; and of course Chase Andrews, the murder victim whose death sets off the investigation that drives much of the novel’s plot.

The Author of “Crawdads”

The Life of Delia Owens

Delia Owens was born in 1949 in Georgia, USA. She spent most of her childhood in rural Georgia, where she developed an interest in wildlife and nature. Owens studied Zoology at the University of Georgia and later earned a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from the University of California, Davis.

After completing her studies, Owens worked as a wildlife scientist in Africa, studying elephants and other large mammals.

She later returned to the United States and worked for many years as a wildlife researcher and writer, focusing on conservation issues and the behavior of large predators.

Delia Owens’ Writing Career

Owens’ first book, Cry of the Kalahari, was co-written with her husband Mark Owens and published in 1984. It chronicled their experiences studying wildlife in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.

The book was a critical and commercial success, and Owens went on to write several more books about her experiences as a wildlife researcher.

In 2018, Owens published her first work of fiction, Where the Crawdads Sing. The book was an instant bestseller and has been praised for its vivid descriptions of nature and its exploration of themes such as loneliness and resilience.

Controversy surrounding Delia Owens

Despite the success of her novel, Owens has faced controversy over her past work as a wildlife researcher.

In 1996, the ABC news-magazine show Turning Point featured a documentary about American conservationists Mark and Delia Owens, whose work focused on saving elephants from poachers and corrupt African officials in Zambia.

The documentary included the filmed murder of an alleged poacher, which later sparked a Zambian police investigation into the Owenses’ activities.

A 2010 New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg revealed that Mark’s son, Christopher Owens, allegedly fired two of the three shots at the poacher. The Owenses have denied involvement in the shooting, claiming confusion between Christopher and the ABC cameraman, Chris Everson, who shared the same first name.

Chris Everson stated that Christopher fired a shot, and he began filming, capturing the scout’s second shot and Christopher’s third shot.

The poacher’s identity and body were never recovered, leading to speculation that Mark disposed of the body using his helicopter. However, Mark and Delia deny this, with Delia offering an alternative explanation for the helicopter.

Goldberg found a letter suggesting Mark’s knowledge of poacher killings and the disappearance of some episode footage. After the incident, Christopher vanished, and the U.S. embassy instructed Mark and Delia to leave Zambia.

Following their departure from Africa, Mark and Delia relocated to the secluded region of Boundary County in northern Idaho.

It was later revealed that the Owens had created a corps of game scouts and militarized the park, with Mark Owens leading airborne raids against suspected poaching camps. The Owenses’ scouts were known to tie suspected poachers to stakes, and Mark Owens himself bragged about the killing of poachers on his watch.

Zambian authorities remain interested in bringing charges for the 1995 televised killing and other possible criminal activities. Mark, Delia, and Christopher Owens are still wanted for questioning related to these events. Delia Owens has denied any involvement in the killing of the alleged poacher and any wrongdoing.

In 2022, several news outlets reported that Owens had been accused of illegally killing leopards and other large predators while working in Africa in the 1980s.

Delia Owens has denied the allegations, and the controversy has not affected the popularity of her book.

Is “Where the Crawdads Sing” Based on a True Story?

The Real-Life Inspiration for the Novel

According to multiple sources, including Oprah Daily and Shortform Books, “Crawdads” is not based on a true story. There is no record of a woman who lived in a marsh and was accused of killing a man, as the protagonist Kya is in the novel.

However, the author has mentioned that some of the events in the novel were inspired by her own experiences living in Africa and studying wildlife.

Journalist Laura Miller’s 2019 Slate piece highlights both inconsequential comparisons, such as a cat in the book named after an African man the Owenses once employed, and more significant ones, like a “righteous” murder where the killer walks free.

In the novel, readers are meant to sympathize with Kya, the protagonist, who kills Chase after he attempts to rape her. The book frames her trial as unfair, targeting a mistreated outsider by an unjust community.

Miller notes situational and symbolic similarities between the fictional murder and the real-life poaching incident. She questions whether Chase, like the poacher, got his just deserts even if his killing technically violates the law.

It is possible that Delia Owens used the real-life incident as a basis for her story, regardless of her then-husband and stepson’s involvement. This connection makes “Where the Crawdads Sing” a captivating story both on and off the page.

The Differences Between the Novel and Real-Life Events

Some readers have drawn parallels between Kya Clark, the protagonist of the novel, and a woman named Betty Lou Beets who was convicted of murder in Texas in 1985. However, as Screen Rant points out, there are significant differences between the two cases, and it is unlikely that Betty Lou Beets was a direct inspiration for the character of Kya.

Overall, while “Crawdads” may contain elements that were inspired by real-life events or people, it is important to remember that the novel is a work of fiction and should be enjoyed as such.

Taylor Swift’s involvement in “Crawdads”

Director Olivia Newman and executive producer Reese Witherspoon did not initially approach Taylor Swift to write an original song for the film adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing.”

Instead, Swift was inspired by the book and, after learning about the upcoming movie, created a song specifically for the film during the writing of her “Folklore” album.

Witherspoon and the production team were thrilled with the “haunting, beautiful” song that Swift contributed.

Swift was moved by the female authorship of the book, the involvement of actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, and director Olivia Newman. She aimed for the song to have a gothic, haunting feel, using only instruments available before 1953 and recording it in one take.

The song, titled “Carolina,” now concludes the film and plays over the end credits. It has the potential to earn Swift her first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

The Impact of “Where the Crawdads Sing”

The Novel’s Critical Reception

“Crawdads” has received mostly positive reviews from critics. The New York Times called it a “painfully beautiful first novel that is at once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative, and a celebration of nature.” The Washington Post praised the novel’s “gorgeous descriptions of the natural world” and “lyrical prose.”

However, some reviewers criticized the book’s plot and character development. Critics have pointed out the deliberate callbacks to Delia’s life in Zambia, as well as the improbable and condescending portrayals of Black characters in the book.

The Novel’s Cultural Impact

“Where the Crawdads Sing” has had a significant cultural impact since its release and its success has solidified Delia Owens’ place as a prominent author. The novel has been praised for its portrayal of a strong, independent female protagonist and its themes of isolation, prejudice, and resilience. It has also sparked renewed interest in the natural world and conservation efforts.

The adaptation into a film further increased the novel’s cultural impact.

 Whether or not the novel is based on a true story, it has become a beloved work of fiction that has touched the hearts of many.