So, apparently, 2019 is the year of the literary exposé, and this time Where the Crawdads Sing is the book on the hot seat. Earlier this year, the New Yorker published a pretty thorough takedown of The Woman in the Window author A. J. Finn, and now Slate is taking a hard look into the background of Delia Owens, the author of Where the Crawdads Sing in an article published earlier today.
The Zambia Incident
Warning: This discussion involves a spoiler regarding one of the main plot points of Where the Crawdads Sing, so read with caution.
So, let’s see what this is all about. First, this is more about Delia Owens’s ex-husband, Mark Owens, though the even in question happened while they were still together.
The short version of this is that there was a poacher that was killed in Zambia in 1995, where her ex-husband Mark and stepson, Christopher, “were implicated” (to use Slate’s words, keep reading for a big caveat about this) and it was filmed by an ABC camera crew. What does this have to do with Delia? Slate writer Laura Miller says that it could be seen as it is an (arguably) morally justified, but illegal killing. And in Where the Crawdads Sing (Last warning, spoilers ahead!!!) the main character of Kya commits a murder that’s also (arguably) morally justified.
I find the connection between the Zambia events and the book events to be a bit tenuous, but Miller uses this as the basis for her exposé. She makes the point that perhaps Delia Owens was influenced by this incident, which I guess is a valid observation.
At any rate, Mark was “implicated” because he helped to oversee a group of scouts, one of whom killed a poacher. As for Christopher, there were three shots and one of the shooters was identified by a witness (the camera man) to be Christopher. The events are described much more clearly in a New Yorker article (which Miller references) published in April 2010, called “The Hunting,” which is about the Owens’s conservation activities in Africa and whether they went too far.
Should Delia Owens be held to account for this?
My issue with the Slate article is that it talks about Murder! And Delia Owens! in the subheading of the article, but doesn’t clarify that Delia wasn’t actually the one involved in it until around 250 words deep in the article.
Miller chides fellow members of the press who she implies are “lazy or unseasoned” for not picking up this story earlier, but I’d argue that this incident isn’t really about Delia Owens, except tangentially. And penning articles where it implies that people murdered someone when they didn’t (stating that she’s “wanted for questioning in a murder” before mentioning that it’s not really about her) in order to get clicks is much worse journalism.
I understand wanting to write tantalizing and titillating articles that get clicks, but when it comes to implications of murder, maybe consider having some moral boundaries? That it’s a well-known statistic (especially to people in journalism) that 60% of people mostly just read headlines makes it that much more irresponsible.
The Racism Allegations
Later in the article, Miller also talks about Delia and Mark’s questionable, possibly racist, attitudes about the locals in Africa, stating: “One of the Owenses’ critics in Goldberg’s article touched on this obliviousness when he characterized the couple’s attitude toward Africa as ‘Nice continent. Pity about the Africans.’”
Most of this section of the Slate article is based on Goldberg’s New Yorker article, the same one cited above. I’d recommend just reading the New Yorker about this, since his argument is stated better and more clearly there. The short version is that their attitude sounds very white-savior-ish. They also seem to value the lives of animals over the lives of humans at times.
I will note that the only thing Miller adds to the discussion in her Slate article is a bit iffy. Miller quotes some dialogue to show how Jumpin’ (a black character in Where the Crawdads Sing) speaks improper English, but she ignores the fact that young Kya (who is white), her Pa (also white) and most of the townspeople (lots of white people) also speak like that in the book.
In contrast, the evidence the New Yorker article presents is more compelling.
If you’re going to read the Slate article, you should definitely read the New Yorker article that it’s based on as well to get a more accurate idea of the events.
As for how this effects my views of the book (which I enjoyed), I’d say the first part about the poacher doesn’t make a huge difference to me. The parts about the racism are more troubling to me, but that’s not really what the Slate article was focused on since Miller clearly knows that rumors about murders get more clicks.
What are your thoughts?