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.