I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven ~ 1967. This edition: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7720-0617-2. 138 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
This is a slight, quiet, non-sentimental though rather romanticized novel about a young, terminally ill Anglican priest and his short residence in the Tsawataineuk (First Nations) village at the head of remote Kingcome inlet, on the southwestern British Columbia coast, opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The time frame is contemporary with its writing, in the mid 1960s.
The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”
The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”
“A little less than two years if he’s lucky.”
“So short a time to learn so much? It leaves me no choice. I shall send him to my hardest parish. I shall send him to Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages.”
“Then I hope you’ll pray for him, my lord.”
But the Bishop only answered gently that it was where he would wish to go if he were young again, and in the ordinand’s place.
So off goes young Mark Brian, the new vicar of Kingcome, under the able supervision of a young native man of similar age, Jim Wallace. Mark and Jim gravely size each other up, setting the tone for the rest of the story. Mark’s only authority is in the religious arena – the villagers respect him as a symbolic leader representing the church – but in every other aspect of his daily life he is as a child compared to the capable and wilderness-savvy people around him.
Mark is in some ways wise beyond his years – perhaps it is because of prospective hand of death stretched over him? – yes, this is slightly cynical but one can’t help but feel that our young protagonist is just the tiniest bit too good to be entirely true – and he settles down to learn from the people of Kingcome how best to deal with this strange new place he has found himself in.
Various incidents occur, and Mark comes nicely up to scratch in the eyes of the villagers, who by the end of Mike’s worldly tenure (he does indeed perish, though not of his mysterious ailment) have accepted him as one of their own. And Mike himself has apparently succeeded in preparing his soul for the life everlasting which his religion promises, and has done some earthly good in the meantime.
Margaret Craven has created a novel which is deeply appreciative of the region in which the story is set, and calmly descriptive of the very real problems of the Tsawataineuk people as their ancient culture is quickly being changed by the influx of modern ways and the influence of the non-native colonizers and religious missionaries.
Each incident is treated with sober even-handedness, as the author succeeds in seeing each angle to every encounter. The “old native ways” are perhaps seen through slightly rose-tinted spectacles, but by and large this is a very fair depiction of an extended culture clash.
The story is overly simplistic in many ways, of course – the book is, after all, extremely short – and I found it just a little hard to wrap my head around a fatal illness with no obvious signs except for a progressive weakness.
Everyone in Mark’s world appears to know of his fate – his church superiors because of the doctor’s diagnosis, and his twin sister because someone has obviously tipped her off, and the motherly native ladies of the village because of some special intuitiveness – but the man himself is clueless until very close to the end. He appears to be experiencing no pain or obvious symptoms, and there is no mention of any sort of palliative treatment. What the heck is wrong with him?! Inquiring minds (okay, mine) want to know! I can only surmise that it is that special fictional fatal ailment we run across here and there, diagnosed by clever physicians who can accurately predict the likely time frame of their subject’s demise. Would that our real doctors were this wise…
But that is my only real complaint against this likeable story. It hits all of the buttons, and was a commercial success some years after its low-key first publication, when a reissue sent it rocketing up bestseller lists.
Author Margaret Craven was an American journalist, and she travelled in the area of the setting of I Heard the Owl Call My Name for some months in 1962, which experience inspired the story. The novel was very well received in the Pacific Northwest, and in British Columbia in particular, where it remains a recommended novel in the B.C. high school English curriculum. It was also made into a modestly successful television movie in 1973.
The novel receives a rare favourable mention for a book by a non-native writer on the American Indians in Children’s Literature list – see Debbie Reese’s AICL blog – though it is also sometimes viewed by modern critics as depicting outdated attitudes and ideas.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name is indeed a dated book, published almost 50 years ago as it was, but it retains merit for its articulate and admiring depiction of a people and a place. The gentle fictional melodrama of the doomed priest seems to me slightly secondary to the “capture” of the very real setting.