Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
Above all else, I Heard the Owl Call My Name is concerned with change, time, and the values human beings assign to them. The novel contrasts two cultures: the complex, extroverted white society that meets its needs by manipulating its surroundings, and the secretive, tradition- bound Native American society that lives in harmony with nature and accepts things as they are.
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Mark Bryan's bishop sends him to the Kwakiutl village, knowing that the young priest is dying of an unspecified disease. "Re-educated" by his experience among the Kwakiutl, Mark learns the relative value of time; the peace, happiness, and sense of accomplishment gained from suffering and struggling with others; and, although it is easily overlooked, the unity that exists between his Christian faith and the values of a "primitive" culture. As he strives to find acceptance among the tribe, Mark learns that gestures reflecting a sense of community—which he once thought of as meaningless rituals—are of essential importance in the village. He also learns that he must share in the white man's guilt regarding the mistreatment of Native Americans. Mark's education is very much the heart and soul of the novel. Receptive to the experience, he bears his self-doubt and soon begins to learn. He learns to live in tune with nature's cycle, to accept endurance and faith as guideposts to survival, to recognize that humanity and the animal kingdom are one and the same, and to embrace life as the sum of positive and negative experience. Even more essential to Craven's theme is that Mark's initial step toward understanding himself and his world is realizing what he does not know. As his consciousness changes, Mark finds himself accepted by his adopted society, which prepares him to grapple with the most difficult lesson of all—accepting death.
The author's conception of death is neither simple nor sentimental. The novel stresses that many kinds of death exist, some worse than bodily death. People sometimes suffer spiritual death, and cultural death may threaten whole societies, as demonstrated by the passing of the Kwakiutl way of life. Moreover, Craven shows that although the inevitability of death must be accepted, its finality is an open matter.
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.
At every level of the novel, rebirth follows death. Just as nature is reborn in spring, Mark's spirit becomes a living presence in the village after he leaves. Craven chooses as her chief symbol of this theme the salmon, called "the swimmer" by the villagers and the most important source of their livelihood. When the salmon hatches, it resists the current but eventually moves away from its birthplace. At the end of its life, it returns to the very same spot, deposits its eggs and dies there, thus renewing the life cycle. This event was so important to the northwestern Native Americans that they attributed immortality to "the swimmer" and, in an important ritual, returned its bones to the water, believing it would be resurrected.
The motif of eternal death and rebirth is, at its foundation, not very different from traditional Christian belief. Indeed, Mark soon sees that hard work, community, and charity (typified by the Kwakiutl "potlatch") are as vital to the village as to the church congregation. The villagers, too, find it easy to integrate tribal tradition with Christian worship.
Craven challenges an industrial society to discover the reassurance, integrity, and awareness that can be found in a journey from everyday reality. Rather than trying to master the physical world and bend it to fit their needs, people should, the author implies, adapt to and learn from nature. Although the novel focuses on Mark, Craven populates it with the patient Kwakiutl: selfsacrificing old Marta; Mark's companion, Jim; Keetah and Gordon, the young people torn between two worlds; Old Peter, the carver who endures like the mountains; and George P., the tribal elder watching his dominion dissipate. In portraying characters from white society, Craven distinguishes between those who have the ability to understand a different culture and those who do not. The bishop and the veteran mission priest, Caleb, have attained some of the Kwakiutl wisdom, while the village's teacher, working for extra pay, shows no sense of community and seems to stand for the white man's belittlement and abuse of the Native American.
Mark's relationship with the young people is a significant facet of the novel. Craven emphasizes that it is important not only that the old culture survive but that it be revitalized. Mark encourages the adolescents to go out into the world but not to forget their heritage. The Kwakiutl must build a bridge, he says, not a boat that would simply take them away from their land and their culture. Keetah and her baby provide a good example of this bridge building: she conceives and gives birth to the baby outside the village because its father has opted for the white world, but then Keetah returns with her baby to the village. This chain of events also reinforces Craven's theme of rebirth.
In her autobiography, Craven notes that by the time the film version of I Heard the Owl Call My Name was completed, the village upon which the book was based had been almost entirely deserted. Yet, not long after, people began to return and restore the community, continuing in real life the endless cycle of death and rebirth that Craven describes in her novel.