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Craven, Margaret, I Heard the Owl Call My Name.
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
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
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