Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Margaret Craven's I HEARD THE OWL CALL MY NAME


[This review used here by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission. You may link to it from another site, but cannot paste the entire review on your site.]

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Craven, Margaret, I Heard the Owl Call My Name. New York: Doubleday (1973). 159 pages; grades 7-up; Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl)

It is possible for an author to put down, in truth and beauty, the lives of a people not her own. Such authors are few and far between. Margaret Craven is one of them.

Mark Brian is a young vicar, dying but not knowing it, assigned to minister to the bishop's “hardest parish,” the Kwakiutl village of Quee (“inside place”), which the whites call Kingcome. He encounters a place of incomparable beauty and a people of ancient tradition and ceremony, of prefabricated houses and an alien­ated younger gen­eration. In this place, and from these people, he learns of living and dying, of compas­sion and commitment.

Writing in the third person, Craven clearly and with great good humor sympathizes with the villagers. She describes how they take revenge on the intruders by serving them mashed turnips, and how they “cautiously confabulate” about the newcomer's “looks, his manners, even his clean fingernails.” “He will be no good at hunting and fish­ing,” Jim tells Chief Eddy.

He knows little of boats. All the time he says we. “Shall we have dinner now? Shall we tie up here?” Pretty soon he will say, “Shall we build a new vicarage?” He will say we and he will mean us.

Craven has the handful of white characters doing and saying things that will have (at least) Indian readers chuckling. Such as the British anthropologist who insists on calling the people “Quackadoodles.” “For the past century in England,” she argues, “this band has been known as the Quackadoodles and as the Quackadoodles, it will be known forever.” And there is the teacher:

This was the teacher's second year in the village. He did not like the Indians and they did not like him.... The teacher had come to the village solely for the isolation pay which would permit him a year in Greece studying the civilization he adored.

Craven's writing is spare, simple, and beautiful, with understanding and compassion. Here, the swimmer, having laid her eggs, meets her end:

They moved again and saw the end of the swimmer. They watched her last valiant fight for life, her struggle to right herself when the gentle stream turned her, and they watched the water force open her gills and draw her slowly downstream, tail first, as she had started to the sea as a fingerling.

After Mark has died, and the villagers have laid him to rest, she writes:

Past the village flowed the river, like time, like life itself, waiting for the swimmer to come again on his way to the climax of his adventurous life, and to the end for which he had been made. Wa Laum. That is all.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a book of great beauty that can teach much, without polemic, for those who will listen.

—Beverly Slapin

2 comments:

mare atleo said...

Don't forget the movie of the same name done by Award winning Canadian Director David Duke, featuring the Ahousaht First Nation, our Granny Mary and Nan Margaret and a cast of relatives..as well as a couple of HOllywood types....made for Christmas 1974 I think...and now available on Video ....it was a major hit...the book is used extensively in schools on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Our community got a power generating plant from General Electric the sponsor of the film in lieu of payment for the location site.....it was the introduction of power for the community until the hydro cables was laid a few years later.
The making of the movie with the crew in the village reminds me of Ken Kesey's Sailor's Song movie shot in Alaska during the last days of the salmon runs...it was a little Felliniesque....partly because of the cash injection which resulted in consumption that changed the face of the community and partly because the cast partied with the community...
The author of Daughters of Copperwoman lurked in the background soaking up atmosphere....and most of the community ended up being extras.... so the video is like a home movie....

For some First Nations people living on the coast at that time it a controversial book....the background is such that the community in which the book was set refused to participate in the movie for a variety of reasons having to do with the main character....who I was very surprised wasn't dead because he knocked on my door during the shooting....he was officially involved in the background of another book....Error in Judgment by Dara Speck Culhane....who documented the activities of a doctor who "served" a remote community that was half aboriginal and half non-aboriginal....

as Bev points out....the book....rises above all of this...pointing to some more enduring qualities.....and is followed by her autobiography....Again Calls Owl Calls....in 1983

Holly Ristau said...

I read this book my first year of teaching at Naytahwaush, on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, in 1975. I loved the book so much, I wrote to the author. I received an answer back, written in tiny pencil script and accompanied by a little picture of the author that looked like one section of one of those picture strips you would get out of a picture machine. They are both long lost now, but as a new teacher, I was thrilled to death to be in touch with an author who understood the life she had just begun.