Wednesday, 6 November 2013

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven

published 1967


When they passed the potlatch paintings and reached the muskeg near the mouth of the river, the hand of the Welcome totem rose above the trees, and hundreds of small birds, ducks and geese rose at their passing. They entered the river… on the right he saw only one thing, the little white church of Saint George. The Indians took the canoes close to the shore and stepped out into the icy river…


Marta was one of the grandmothers of the tribe. Her hair was white which, in an Indian, means she was very old. Her face was finely wrinkled and of obvious gentility. She was the daughter of an hereditary chief, the wife of a chief, the mother of a chief. At the tribal feasts held for the Bishop, it was she who always slipped him a little dish of peas from her garden because he detested mashed turnips…

[at a potlatch] The women danced first, dressed alike in their red and black ceremonial blankets, with the two-headed serpent on the back or the fir tree outlined in handmade buttons. They turned right because the wolf turned right. When they shook their headdresses, the air was filled with duck down, and the light caught on the blankets, the ermine-tail robes and the spread aprons….

observations: You can’t lay a glove on this book. It’s a thrilling read, touching, imaginative, with wonderful descriptions of people and of nature, and it’s been a best-seller and in print since first publication. It tells the story of a young Anglican priest who does not know he has only 3 years to live, sent by his Bishop to live out his time in a village of (what we would now call) Native Americans in a remote part of the coast of British Columbia in Canada. 

Craven calls them Indians (as was perfectly normal at the time), and she is plainly writing from outside, she seems to expect us to be surprised by the fact that Mark can learn from the locals, as well as teach, and although she mocks the English anthropologist who won’t even learn the name of the tribe correctly, some of the book can be a little condescending. BUT you have to ignore all that, because she is plainly so respectful of the people and their ways, and is saying something important about our relation with the world around us. It is a deeply memorable book.

The tribe she is talking about are the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl), and the black and white photos show a woman named Cla-lish and a group at Alert Bay and a church and carved figure. They date back to the beginning of the 20th century and are from the University of Washington’s collection. The colour photos are of Tlingit people from farther up the coast in Alaska.

8 comments:

  1. Lovely photos, lovely book by the sounds of it, great reviews on Amazon, hmm.....

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  2. Too many books, too little time Col. What are we going to do...?

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  3. I fell in love with this book when I first read it, and I still have my copy. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, though far away from where the book is set, but that definitely added to the book's appeal.

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    1. Yes I know what you mean - I read the book years ago, and liked it very much, but between then and now I lived in Seattle for 6 years, and travelled up the coast a fair bit, and that made the whole thing much more real.

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  4. I may have to try this some day. I love the title.

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    1. Yes, it's a beautiful and memorable name. And I highly recommend the book...

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  5. We read this with book group this year - went down very well.

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    1. I first heard it on Radio 4 about 25 years ago - little did I suspect then that I would end up living up the road (relatively speaking)

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