One-Minute Book Reviews

April 21, 2014

Margaret Craven’s Novel ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’ – O, Canada!

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:22 pm
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A dying priest makes peace with his fate while serving as a missionary to Indians in British Columbia

I Heard the Owl Call My Name. By Margaret Craven. Dell, 160 pp., $6.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1965, the American journalist Margaret Craven spent several weeks in a remote Indian village in British Columbia, hoping to find material for a story. There she met Eric Powell, an Anglian priest who ministered to the Kwakiutls, a tribe whose elders were struggling to preserve their traditions as their young people left for government boarding schools or turned from ancient myths and totems to alcoholism, drug abuse and other modern ills.

Craven drew on that experience for her first novel, which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller soon after its publication in the United States. More than 40 years later, I Heard the Owl Call My Name remains a rarity in North American fiction: a book equally sympathetic to Indians and to the white missionaries who tried to help them, little as they understood tribal customs.

The young priest Mark Brian doesn’t know he has a terminal illness –- unnamed in the novel — when he accepts a posting to the imperiled fishing village of Kingcome, which sits in a river valley below snow-tipped mountains on an inlet in British Columbia. Lonely and beset by hardships such as a ramshackle vicarage and a collision with a brown bear that hibernates under his church, Mark nonetheless faces his challenges with a steady faith, kindness and capacity for hard work. Those virtues win over the skeptical Kwakiutls, among them a tribal matriarch whose previous encounters with outsiders have led her to take the sly revenge of serving mashed turnips to visiting dignitaries because “No white man liked mashed turnips.” The Kwakiutls in turn earn Mark’s admiration for their wisdom, their perseverance amid calamities, and their willingness to help with tasks from steering a boat to building a new vicarage.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name spans nearly two years in the life of the gradually maturing priest, whose parishioners live with ever-present reminders of the death. Mark holds the hand of 46-year-old Kwakiutl woman, lying on a blood-soaked bed, who has what will turn out to be a fatal hemorrhage while giving birth to her sixth child. He trudges through the underbrush with a hunter who, if he wishes to have venison steaks on his table, must look to the woods, not a supermarket. He watches ceremonial dances that honor the customs and memory of Kwakiutl ancestors, many of whom perished in tribal wars generations earlier. Amid so much darkness, he finds comfort not just in his friendships with the Indians but in the natural splendor of the region, which Craven evokes keenly. One year autumn comes softly, with the second blooming of the dogwood trees: “Slowly, as the needles fell, the waters of the inlet grew less clear, and on the river floated the first green leaves of the alders. When the nights cooled, the little berry bush burned crimson under the great, dark cedar, and on one deep green island side, a single cottonwood turned gold.”

This brief, parable-like story lacks the moral, spiritual and literary complexity of such great novels as Death Comes for the Archbishop and Diary of a Country Priest, which may explain why it tends to appear today on young-adult shelves. Some minor characters serve mainly as vehicles for points the author wants to make, particularly about whites’ insensitivity to indigenous tribes. (When a boorish American woman arrives via yacht and asks: “How do you tell the Indians apart?,” Mark replies mildly that he did it “the same way she told her friends apart, because she knew them.”) The priest faces no crisis of the soul and expresses his faith in deeds, not creeds, and in plain-spoken messages of hope. “He was young enough,” Craven writes, “to be a little proud of his first sermon, to which he had given considerable thought: ‘It is better to be a small shrimp in the sea of faith then a dead whale on the beach.’”

But if the novel if the novel has a simple message, it is not a morbid one. Death is so common in Kingcome that Mark comes to see it as natural and at times heroic. The salmon that die soon after spawning in nearby waters provide a central metaphor for his story and suggest its theme. When a Kwakiutl woman laments that the fish perish soon after giving birth, Mark corrects her. A salmon lives a life of courage and adventure, the priest says, and dies after “having spent himself completely for the end for which he was made”: “It is triumph.” So, too, is Mark’s life. It reminds us, as George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” of people “who lived faithfully a hidden life.”

Best line: “Now time had lost its contours.”

Worst line: “The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town, or even for his own bit of land,” the young priest’s bishop says. In this line and a number of others, the novel romanticizes Canada’s indigenous people even as it sympathizes with their hardships.

Published: 1967 (Clarke, Irwin, Canada); 1973 (Doubleday, U.S.)

You may also want to read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye, a similarly short book that resembles a parable.

Furthermore: A 1973 movie version of I Heard the Owl Call My Name starred Tom Courtenay as Mark Brian.

Jan is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. You can follow Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 7, 2009

The Moral Failures of U.S. Health Care – T.R. Reid’s ‘The Healing of America’

A specialist in Tibetan herbal medicine wanted to taste T.R. Reid's urine.

The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care. By T. R. Reid. Penguin, 277 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant polemic argues that the American health-care crisis is, above all, a moral one: Alone among well-off democracies, the U.S. has never made a moral choice to guarantee health care for all. Americans have decided that everybody has the right to an education and a legal defense, regardless of the cost or difficulty of providing these, T.R. Reid reminds us. But we’ve never decided that everybody has the right to health care. Because we haven’t, the U.S. is the only country in which medical bills can bankrupt people. It’s the only one in which patients who have paid their health insurance premiums for years can — and do — have their policies canceled while they’re fighting for life from a hospital bed.

Fewer than half of all Americans are satisfied with this state of affairs, according to a 2001 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. But many critics of the system believe that all the alternatives involve conditions too onerous to accept – long waiting lists, the rationing of care, no choice of doctors, or “socialized medicine.”

T.R. Reid offers a powerful rebuttal to that idea with fascinating and well-written portraits of the health-care systems in five countries that have universal coverage: France, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and Canada. Japan, for example, hardly has “socialized medicine.” Its widely admired approach to health care uses private doctors and hospitals and nonprofit insurers. The system involves no gatekeepers, no rationing, and no waiting lists. It offers high-quality care and ample choice for patients. People split the cost of insurance with their employers or if they are unemployed, with their local government. And the Japanese lead the world in life expectancy (85.5 years for women, 78.7 for men).

Reid also evaluates the health care systems in India, Taiwan, Switzerland and other countries. And he found an ingenious way to dramatize some of their differences after an American orthopedist suggested that he have surgery on an injured shoulder. As he traveled around the world, Reid asked foreign doctors how they would treat the problem. In Nepal, he met a specialist in Tibetan herbal medicine who wanted to taste his urine before making a diagnosis. At an Ayurvedic hospital known as “the Mayo Clinic of traditional Indian medicine,” he submitted three times a day to massages of “warm sesame oil laced with forty-six herbs and medications.” These encounters add color and suspense to The Health of America without taking its focus off the moral imperatives of health care reform.

Reid doesn’t urge Americans to adopt any country’s model or a “public option” of care paid for by the government (although he notes that we have a public option in Medicare, a system that its beneficiaries generally like). But he appears to believe we can’t reform the system if we continue to allow insurers to make a profit on basic health care, something no other first-world country permits: The solution lies in a nonprofit model, whether run by the government or a nonprofit group. Reid has suggested in interviews that if Congress can’t enact the needed changes, Americans may have to reform the system on a state-by-state basis, though he damns the Massachusetts approach with faint praise.

The most admirable aspect of The Healing of America is that – like any skilled polemicist
– Reid has an exceptional ability to keep his eye on the ball. He deals forthrightly with the economic and other realities that health care reform would involve, such as controlling costs and creating an effective delivery system. But Reid never allows such issues to transcend the moral dimension of allowing tens of thousands of people each year to die and countless others to suffer needlessly. His powerful indictment shows why health care reform is ultimately not about politics or economics: It is about fairness, justice, and doing what is right for all Americans.

Best line: No. 1: “All developed countries except the United States have decided that every human has a basic right to health care.” No. 2: “ … foreign health insurance plans exist only to pay people’s medical bills, not to make a profit. The United States is the only nation that lets insurance companies extract a profit from basic health coverage.” No. 3: “The design of any nation’s health care system involves political economic, and medical decisions. But the primary issue for any health care system is a moral one.”

Worst line: “British women tend to have their babies at home; Japanese women, in contrast, almost always give birth in the hospital – and mother and child remain there an average of ten days after delivery.” The National Childbirth Trust says that in the U.K., 2.7 percent of women give birth at home.

Editor: Ann Godoff

Published: September 2009

About the author: Reid is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post.

Further comments on The Healing of America appeared in the posts “Excuses Aetna, Prudential and Blue Shield Have Used to Deny Claims” and “Going to the Doctor in Japan — Please Don’t Tip the Proctologist.”

Listen to a podcast of T.R. Reid talking about The Healing of America.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 13, 2009

The True Story of a Girl Captured by Mohawks in 1704 During the Slaughter of Colonists in Deerfield in 1704 – John Demos’s ‘The Unredeemed Captive’

Why did young Eunice Williams stay with Indians who had murdered her mother?

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America. By John Demos. Vintage 336 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1704 a French and Indian war party slaughtered dozens of men, women, and children in a predawn attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. Recent histories have sanitized the incident known as the Deerfield Massacre, calling it “the Raid on Deerfield.”

The term “raid” hardly fits the events described in this memorable true story of Eunice Williams, who lived through the terror that was masterminded by the French but largely carried out by Mohawks and other Indians. Eunice was a 7-year-old Puritan minister’s daughter when she was kidnapped in the attack – oops, sorry, “raid”! – on Deerfield at about 4 a.m. on February 29. Her mother died on a subsequent forced march to Canada, killed by an Indian who “slew her with his hatchet at one stroke,” a son wrote. Her father and siblings were eventually released.

But Eunice stayed with the Indians, one of whom she married, for puzzling reasons: Was she a prisoner or a willing expatriate? The Yale University historian John Demos explores the question in this fascinating finalist for 1994 National Book Award (inexplicably described on the cover as the winner of the prize).

Enough gaps remain in the record that Demos has to tease out answers, partly by exploring relations between the English, French, and Indians in 18th-century America. (“Some things we have to imagine.”) So The Unredeemed Captive isn’t a Jon Krakauer tale with muskets. But its story matters for more than its complex portrayal of colonial life. Demos doesn’t take the fashionable path of romanticizing American Indians, but he doesn’t spare the Puritans, either. He notes that in our era, “fundamentalism” has become a shorthand term for “radical Islamists, evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, militant Hindus” and others. “By the same token,” he writes, “it’s not a long stretch to characterize the early Puritans, surrounding and including the Williams family, as ‘fundamentalists’ themselves; witness their sense of utter certainty in what they were about, their intolerance of difference and dissent, their zeal for conversion of infidel natives, and their readiness to fight, die, and kill in the cause of advancing their faith.”

Best line: “Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls?,” a rhetorical question asked by
Rev. John Williams after the massacre.

Worst line: Demos tells much of Eunice’s story in the present tense, which works less well than the past tense he uses to give it context.

Recommendation? An excellent choice for history books clubs and others that like serious nonfiction.

Editor: Ashbel Green

Published: 1994 (Knopf hardcover), 1995 (Vintage paperback).

Read John Demos’s summary of the Deerfield Massacre in American Heritage. Several Deerfield museums have an excellent interactive Web site that shows a representation of the attack and tells more about the people mentioned in this review.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 5, 2008

Alice Kuipers’s ‘Life on the Refrigerator Door’: At Last, a Novel for Anybody Who Thinks That Mitch Albom Is Too Difficult

A novel from Canada that you could finish during the commercials for a hockey game

Life on the Refrigerator Door: A Novel in Notes. By Alice Kuipers. HarperCollins, 220 pp., $15.95.

By Janice Harayda

Alice Kuipers’s first novel answers the perversely fascinating question: Can anybody write a book dumber than Mitch Albom’s For One More Day? Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with Microsoft Word. Kuipers writes at a second-grade reading level. And because Kuipers lives in Saskatoon, you have to wonder if some kind of trickle-up — or trickle-north — effect is at work here.

An Amazon reviewer said that she read Life on the Refrigerator Door in 20 minutes. I believe her, because I read it during the Super Bowl halftime show. If you’re still trying to get through the new Richard Pevear translation of War and Peace, a book you can read in less than a half hour might sound appealing. But Life on the Refrigerator Door costs $15.95. If you live in a state with the kind of killer sales tax we have here in New Jersey, reading this book could cost you nearly a dollar minute. Next to it, that 1,296-page War and Peace looks like a steal at $37.

Perhaps the kindest way to review Life on the Refrigerator is stick to the facts. First, this a novel about a doctor who doesn’t have a cell phone. Or, apparently, a pager. So she has to communicate with her 15-year-old daughter by notes on the refrigerator. When the doctor gets a horrible, life-threatening disease, they keep communicating that way. One of the main things we learn from this correspondence is that the inability to punctuate a compound sentence may be inherited.

Still, I wouldn’t be too hard on this feel-good-about-feeling-bad female weepie. Unlike For One More Day, the book does have a modestly clever gimmick at its core. How many novels have you read that consist entirely of notes on a refrigerator? Can a novel told in magnets be far behind?

Best line: The epigraph, a poem by William Carlos Williams.

Worst line: “Peter was soooooooooo cute earlier, you should have seen him with the toy carrot Dad got him.”

Recommendation? Like For One More Day and Mister Pip, Life on the Refrigerator Door is a book for children masquerading as adult reading. It may especially appeal to 10-to-13-year-old girls.

Published: September 2007 www.harpercollins.com

Furthermore: Although I read this novel during the Super Bowl halftime show, I wasn’t watching the performances. I was at the Chinese place picking up food.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 25, 2007

Erich Hoyt’s Modern Classic About Killer Whales

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:55 pm
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The true story of an acclaimed writer’s seven summers of living (and sometimes swimming) with orcas in the wild near Vancouver

By Janice Harayda

Many popular books about nature have a problem: They’re weak on science but strong on stories, or they’re strong on science but weak on stories. Erich Hoyt offers a rare blend of scientific authority and deep personal engagement in his modern classic Orca: The Whale Called Killer (Camden House, $12.95). First published 25 years ago by Dutton and still in print, this fascinating book tells the true story of the seven summers its author spent living (and sometimes swimming) with killer whales or orcas in the wild near Vancouver. And while I may be biased because Hoyt is a friend, the praise Orca has received from others is even more extravagant than mine. So instead of writing the usual review, I’d like to quote from some of that praise:

“I have never read a better book about whales …” The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Superb … One of the best nature books of the year.” Publishers Weekly

“One of those rare, genuine books about a wild animal.” Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen, co-winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

“Erich Hoyt’s book is a splendid introduction to one of the most fascinating and charismatic animals in the world.” Sir Peter Scott, Founder, World Wildlife Fund

“Packed with action, [this] is the only [book] I have ever read that treats this glamorous sea predator in depth.” Roger Tory Peterson, naturalist and author of the Peterson Field Guides

A senior research fellow of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Hoyt has won many awards for his science writing. Those honors include the 2002 Outstanding Book of the Year Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for Creatures of the Deep: In Search of the Sea’s Monsters and the World They Live In (Firefly, $40). School Library Journal called Creatures of the Deep “a splendid overview” of undersea life for adults and high school students, adding: “The photographs, sidebars, and unique life-forms presented offer opportune ways of catching the attention of reluctant readers.” Orca is a similarly good choice for both adults and high school students who like science or real-life adventure stories.

Links: www.erichhoyt.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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