Margaret Craven: I heard the Owl call my Name

Reviewed by John Cowan

This is a story about dying. A man dies. A village is dying. And a story about the lives that wait for the dying. A story about living deeply. A story about who you become when abandoned by the props that kept you who you were.

It is British Columbia. The doctor tells the bishop that Mark, young and newly ordained, has less than two years to live. The bishop tells the doctor that then he must send Mark to the hardest parish, Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages, where the natives have no word in their language for “thank you” for he has much to learn before he is ready to die.

The bishop will not tell Mark that he is dying, for then he will try too hard.

This young man ascends the river to live with the Indians until he is one of them and shares their sadness in the ending of their culture as their children slowly drain off to the white person’s world. Aided and abetted by their parents for that is what must be done.

The two years are filled with ordinary things, gentle things of a mostly gentle people. They stand proudly but always with sadness in the depths of their eyes. They fish and hunt. Build a vicarage. Die and are born. Marry. And some, the younger, leave.

Mark does nothing great, nothing that will make the distant papers. He is not the savior of this people.

He drives the boat to various other villages to perform his services. His boat runs errands and rescue missions, a ride to the hospital ship, check in on a solitary who is a prickly friend. His priestly functions are accepted and expected. He sits with children. People talk to him and he quickly learns to say little and say it quietly. Gradually the artificial “we” that he has been told to use becomes unnecessary. He is now one of them.

And then he hears the owl call his name.

He has been told that that is a sound only heard by a dying man. For some time he has wondered at his constant tiredness. He goes to a matriarch of the tribe to tell her of the owl and his concerns, expecting that she will ease them, tell him it is nothing, not to worry, a silly superstition.

She says, “Yes, my son.”

There is more to it than that. I have given nothing away that will ruin the story. I just reread it for the third or perhaps fourth time. Might read it again soon. It soaks in, and soaking is a pleasant experience.

Doubleday, 166 pages. 1973. We were waiting for our first son.

Wa Laum (That is all)