I Heard the Owl Call My Name

by Margaret Craven

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 97

The novel is set against the mountains and waters of British Columbia, a western province of Canada, north of Washington State. It follows Mark Bryan, a young priest, from Vancouver to his mission at the outpost of Kingcome Village on the coast. There, the small Kwakiutl tribe lives off the sea and its bounty. Since the book is based upon Craven's experiences, one can assume that it takes place during the 1960s—the time of her visit to Kingcome Village—when the tribe was being dispersed because its young people were going to the city for schooling.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is rich both in its description of the starkly beautiful features of British Columbia and in its use of Native American symbolism and lore. Rather than simply showing off her research or making the novel "colorful," Craven's use of Kwakiutl legends constantly echoes the novel's themes and atmosphere.

The salmon, so vital to Kwakiutl life, symbolizes the recurring cycle of life. In returning to its birthplace to die, the fish represents struggle as well as the recognition that all beings follow a course determined by what they are and what they must be. Like the children of the village, the salmon follows its need to leave but senses that it will return someday.

Other creatures also act as symbols in the narrative. According to legend, the owl calls the name of those about to die, representing the inevitability of death. A subtle but important symbol is the eagle. One of the first things Mark notices in the church is the carved eagle figure. The endurance, majesty, and pride of the famed American bird suggest the qualities of the Kwakiutl themselves: remote but aware of the greater world and its dangers.

Craven symbolically portrays the theme of rebirth throughout the book, both in her depiction of nature's cycle and in more subtle ways. For instance, when Marta, Mark's housekeeper, gives him a woolen hat, she studies him trying it on and tells him he looks "just like an egg." Certainly, he is about to be reborn into awareness.

The novel's structure reinforces its symbols and themes. Its twenty-three chapters suggest, perhaps, the cycle of the day, with the twenty-fourth unwritten chapter being the village's continuing struggle to survive. The novel's events run the course of a full year, showing the village's seasonal cycle of work and play much like that of "the swimmer." From chapter to chapter, the year itself seems to go faster and faster, possibly reflecting Mark's attempt to find meaning for his life in the time allotted to him. Then, time seems to stop, reinforcing Craven's idea that time is relative in human life and that the most important things are timeless. Additionally, the book is divided into four parts. While these divisions do not correspond to the seasons of the year, they do reflect stages in Mark's development. The title of part 1, "Yes, my lord— No, my lord," reflects Mark's obedience as well as his uncertainty about his new assignment. In part 2, "The Depth of Sadness," Mark learns about the threat to the village posed by the young people abandoning their parents' way of life. Part 3, "Che-kwe-la" (meaning "fastmoving water"), is Mark's high point, a time of joy when he gains acceptance, love, and the skills and wisdom that make him part of the village. The final part, "Come Wolf, Come Swimmer," reverberates with the resignation Mark has learned as he comes to terms with his own destiny. The wolf represents ravenous death, but the swimmer represents a rebirth that denies the finality of death.

Craven depicts serious themes, but she also conveys the gentle humor of the Kwakiutl. Laughter is, after all, a part of life, and although Mark is the butt of some joking, it is a good-natured and respectful laughter that he hears, laughter that implies that sadness and happiness coexist in life.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

Craven presents the plight of the Native American with great sensitivity. Her narrative reflects a deep insight into, and an abiding respect for, the Kwakiutl. She argues that all North American white people must share in the guilt for white society's mistreatment of Native Americans, but she urges that this guilt be used constructively to understand and help salvage what remains of Native American culture.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name emphasizes how important it is for people to understand and accept the ways of different cultures, different religions, and even different species found in nature. It shows that seemingly irreconcilable differences can also be resolved by finding a creative compromise, or "bridge building."

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67

America's Fascinating Indian Heritage. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1978. Background on Native American culture.

Cunningham, Valentine. New Statesman (August 2, 1974). A favorable review of I Heard the Owl Call My Name.

Gunton, Sharon R., and Gerard J. Senick, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Excerpts reviews of the novel.

Spence, Robert F., et al. The Native Americans. New York: Holt and Rinehart, 1965. The history of Native Americans.

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