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.