I Heard the Owl Call My Name

According to the Kwakiutl people, if you hear an owl call your name, your death is imminent. When Margaret Craven’s novel opens, young Anglican vicar Mark Brian, newly assigned to the Kwakiutl town of Kingcome, hasn’t yet heard the owl, but he is gravely ill and doesn’t know it. His bishop, knowing that Mark is unlikely to live more than a couple of years, has assigned him to the most difficult parish in his bishopric, a group of remote Indian villages on the British Columbia coast, among a people who are also waiting for the owl’s call as their culture slowly dies.

When Mark arrives at the village, he chooses to observe and to serve, to be available and to be involved, always letting the people teach him and relate to him in the way they choose. He refuses the bishop’s offer of a new house to replace the dilapidated vicarage because he doesn’t feel right about asking the men of the village to transport and assemble it. He eats and enjoys the same food as the Kwakiutl villagers, and he takes an interest in their work and their rituals. When other white men come to the village, he treats them as their behavior deserves, not granting them special status because of their race. He suffers with the people and so becomes one of them. He is the ideal man for this work.

At times, this seems like an overly romanticized account of two cultures meeting and learning to honor each other, but the novel is more complex than that. The Kwakiutl, we are told, have never been at war with the white man, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been conflicts. When Mark first arrives, the villagers are waiting for a permit to bury the body of a recently drowned child. When the official from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police comes to sign the permit, he scolds them for not leaving the body where it was found, even though it was found in the water, possibly not even dead, and the tide was coming in, which made leaving the body on shore impossible. Ridiculous rules like this are just one sign that the villagers’ lives will not be able to continue as they have been. Their old ways have been pushed aside, and the world is moving on.

The inexorable march to the future is most evident among the young of the village. The teenagers all must attend a residential school at nearby Alert Bay, and whenever they return for holidays, the growing gulf between the generations becomes more tangible. Peter, one of the old men of the village, talks to Mark about the parents’ pain:

“It is always so when the young come back from the school. My people are proud of them, and resent them. They come from a far country. They speak English all the time, and forget the words of Kwákwala. They are ashamed to dip their food in the oil of the óolachon which we call gleena. They say to their parents, ‘Don’t do it that way. The white man does it this way.’ They do not remember the myths, and the meaning of the totems. They want to choose their own wives and husbands.”

He faltered as if what he was going to say was too painful to utter.

“Here in the village my people are at home as the fish in the sea, as the eagle in the sky. When the young leave, the world takes them, and damages them. They no longer listen when the elders speak. They go, and soon the village will go also.”

The overall tone of the book is elegiac, rather than angry. This is no polemic against the white man, although anger does at times burst forth, as when the warm-hearted matriarch Mrs. Hudson, grieving the loss of a young village woman to prostitution and drugs, lifts her head and looks directly at Mark, saying slowly, “What have you done to us? What has the white man done to our young?” We see then that anger has been an undercurrent all along, and now we share it as we watch what happens when the Indians are allowed to buy alcohol but can no longer hold the great dance-potlatches that were so important to the life of the community. We see the white man’s hospital boats taking care of the sick, and we see the boats taking the young away, to new opportunities and new lives. Craven never tells us what to think about all this; she just observes the events and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

Craven, a white American journalist, wrote this book after visiting the Anglican mission at Kingcome and other villages in British Columbia in 1962. Although Craven’s perspective as a white woman may have led her to over-romanticize the Native life and the relationship between the mission and the village, I was generally impressed with her approach. Her descriptions of the scenery, the rituals, and the village life give evidence to her keen powers of observation and attention to detail. Her style is subtle enough that telling details and revealing moments can easily slip right by if you aren’t reading attentively. This is a short novel, shelved in the young adult section of my library, but it’s not a quick read. I had to read the first half twice, in fact, after I realized at my book group meeting how much I had missed. But if you give it your attention, you’ll find a lovely and tragic story within these pages.

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15 Responses to I Heard the Owl Call My Name

  1. Lisa says:

    I find this book really moving, and I still have a copy on my shelves. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I loved the setting, but I didn’t appreciate the complexity and subtlety of the book until later.

  2. Deb says:

    There was a movie adaptation in the 1970s (with Tom Courtenay as the priest) which I saw and that led me to the book. I read it in my teens and, based on your reivew, I think I missed some of the layers. I’ll have to seek it out and read it again.

    BTW, I used to work in a junior high school library and this book is definitely categorized as YA. Whether that’s fair or not, I’m not sure.

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t realize how much I missed reading the first part until I went to my book group, and we talked about it. I had to go back and reread. She mentions lots of big things in an oblique way. You have to read between the lines.

      I can never quite figure out what causes some books to be categorized as YA and some as adult. This had very few teenage characters and the language was no simpler than I find in a lot of adult fiction. I know YA can be pretty complex, but these days it tends to deal with teen characters, and this doesn’t. Wonder what the criteria was in the 70s.

      • Deb says:

        I don’t think the divide between YA and Adult was as defined then as it appears to be today. When I was in my teens (the 1970s), our public school library and our community library had a children’s section (Dr. Seuss, etc.) and then everything else; there was no designated “Young Adult,” although all those teen romances by Betty Cavana, et al, were usually shelved separately. I read so many books by randomly wandering up and down the aisles, selecting books because their titles grabbed me. Today, if a child is the book’s narrator or if the subject matter (regardless of how “dark”) does not include explicit sex, there seems to be a tendency to want to shelve it as YA, whether it fits or not.

  3. Kathleen says:

    I’d love to add this to my shelf to read. It is hard to resist a moving story that will bring me knowledge of a different culture and perhaps even some understanding too.

  4. Stefanie says:

    I read this when I was about 11 and recall really liking it. I doubt that I noticed much of anything you mention in your post, I think I just liked the story. I also read her autobiography, Again Calls the Owl, but when I was a kid I thought it was another novel and was disappointed that it was not. I’d very likely appreciate it much more as an adult.

    • Teresa says:

      I really wonder what I would have made of this when I was 11. So much of what fascinated me involved reading between the lines. On the face of it, the story didn’t do much for me.

  5. Sam Znaimer says:

    This book has not aged well. The author’s efforts to imbue her story with a mythic aura now seem clumsy and formulaic. Her characters – the wise and gentle bishop, the loyal and silent Indian helper, the young vicar unaware of his tragic frailty – are all heavily romanticized. Deprived of any genuine humanity and character, they become empty symbols, into which the author pours her prejudices. This portrayal of the dynamics between European and First Nations cultures teaches us little about the world of northern Vancouver Island. Instead it demonstrates the paternalism of a foreign writer who came with preconceptions and left with just enough material to generate a shallow commercial success.

    The story does, however, have a prophetic (and tragic) ring to it. When the children of the native village are sent off to the residential school in Alert Bay, we are meant to believe that the tug of western learning and Christian morality will sweep them into a happier and more confident future, even though it challenges their personal identity and the continuity of their traditional culture. From today’s vantage point almost 50 years after the book was written, we know that these children were indeed caught between two worlds and that many became stranded between them, broken shells who would never again be at home in either community. But not because the modern western lifestyle was so attractive they couldn’t go home again. The real St. Michael’s Anglican School at Alert Bay was indeed a place where spirits were crushed. At the school, First Nations students were prohibited from speaking their language and kept from their families for years. These activities were an integral part of the Church and the Canadian government’s efforts to strip First Nations people of their culture and to assimilate them into the mainstream.

    In its day, I Heard the Owl Call My Name was received as a compassionate story of the acceptance of First Nations culture by a wise and tolerant church. It stressed the spiritual lessons that the West could learn from a culture that was close to the land and the natural cycles of life and death. But today the words ring hollow, and the patronizing tone cannot be ignored. By all means read this book, but read it as a social history of western attitudes to First Nations culture and not as a story of a spiritual quest.

  6. I have read this book twice, once as a young man who is a native from this part of the world and once in my late 40’s. The last time reading this book from a hospital bed where I would eventually die a few years later, I was moved emotionally by the similarities of the characters life and my own and others I have known. There is a message in this book, and a great story to read. The book was given to me on the last occasion by a lost love of mine named DoraThea (Dorff) and it made the personal interpretation of this story more meaningful for me. I died of prostate and bladder cancer in 2002, because I drank too heavily, but I left behind a wonderful son who meant the world to me, and the love of my life Dorff, and others. My mother died 3 weeks before me and she had a hard life in Vancouver. My name is Matthew and I am from the killer whale clan on the Salish coast of British Colombia. I leave behind nothing but love and finally peace.
    May the God Spirits bless you all.
    We will meet again I live in you.
    North by Northwest.

  7. I read this book many years ago, and loved it. Just thinking about the priest telling the Indian woman that he heard the owl call his name and her response, “yes, my son” brought tears to my eyes. So pragmatic, so accepting of reality–no lies, no prevarications. Just the truth.

  8. I recently complete reading this book, and loved it. The Bishop deliberately sends Mark to Kingcome since he believe Mark will learn enough there to be ready to die. How will one prepares him/herself especially when one knows he/she have only a year to live? the story is so real, yet so sad but teaches some great lessons of real life.

  9. Jerry Ross Seaman says:

    I can’t remember reading the book, but I’m sure that I did. I do remember seeing the movie version of the story and was deeply touched by it.
    I believe that the Native People , before the White People invaded their culture, lived a simple life true to the Almighty Creator, GOD, or the Source, The POWER has many names to many different humans. I would not think to “Criticize” the story of another, such as this one. I either enjoy it, or not. In this case the story “I Heard the Owl Call My Name” touched something deep inside my heart and soul, and that is what is important to me.
    Also, I believe that the indigenous people lived a life that was “Free of Greed” (as was humanly possible) using everything to the best of their ability, wasting nothing. The majority (or whatever the percentage is that have the Power to get what they want at the expense of all others and all life) of the human race seem to need to have more and more…wasting much that they have, with no concern of looking ahead to what surely will be devastation results with this life style.
    Having said that, I look at the whole picture as a learning curve for the Human Race…we are all still in our infancy, little children, learning to walk, and we are probably going to be stumbling around for many lives, scraping our knees and worse, before we actually learn all that we need to know, to survive in this beautiful world, and learn how to keep it, and all life healthy.

  10. Anonymous says:

    i had to read this book for school and it was literally the worst book i have ever read

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