By Richard J. Mammana
In the first half of 1974, a book about a Canadian Anglican priest spent 19 weeks on The New York Times’s best-seller list, in company with John LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. The book was Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name, first published in Canada in 1967, but catapulted to fame by a made-for-television movie broadcast on CBS in the week before Christmas in 1973. It went on to sell more than a million copies, and was translated into a dozen languages. The book’s plot is as simple as the factual background for it is complex, and I Heard the Owl Call My Name remains an enduring Anglican classic.
The book’s title comes from a tribal legend of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people of the Pacific Northwest (the novel calls them Kwakiutl, in the usage of the time), according to which owls can foretell the deaths of humans by calling out their names. It is set in an undetermined recent past in the First Nations communities of Kingcome Inlet, a fjord on the central British Columbia coast northwest of Vancouver. The local industries are logging, fishing, and canning. European colonial contacts with these communities began in the late 18th century, and Anglican missionary activity under the direction of Alfred James Hall (1853-1918) produced translations of portions of the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer into Kwak’wala from the mid-1880s.
By the time of the novel, settler Anglo-Canadians and communities of First Nations in the region were under the care of the Columbia Coast Mission, an organization incorporated by the Diocese of British Columbia and the Diocese of New Westminster to serve the religious and medical needs of residents during much of the 20th century. The CCM, fondly known as “God’s Little Ships,” operated hospitals, mission boats, retirement homes, and seaplanes.
Like all European contact with indigenous persons, the CCM’s work was complex. There were elements of literacy, obstetric care and dentistry, religious education and the like, held in difficult tension with cultural destruction and shaming, language and ritual loss, and deracination of many kinds. And even as the mission sought to alleviate the problems of poverty and alcohol abuse in both settler and native communities, it participated ineluctably in the larger fixed dynamics of dispossession and lopsided power.
Into this social milieu, described with real sympathy and keen observation, Craven has her fictional bishop send a fictional young priest named Mark Brian. The priest’s internist has diagnosed him with an unidentified terminal illness. In a diocesan culture that would be inconceivable today, the doctor informs the bishop, rather than the patient, of the diagnosis. The bishop then sends Brian to Kingcome to die, but there also to live out his Christian priesthood more fully during the life he has left. His teachers will be the Kwakiutl, their land and its inhabitants, his isolation and his relationships, his learning to see and know in ways to which he was unaccustomed in metropolitan Vancouver.
In other hands, this plot line would have devolved quickly into a churchly reflection on the Noble Savage, the uncorrupted stock character who imparts intangible wisdom or virtue to an outsider visiting an unspoiled wilderness. But this is not the case for Craven, who depicts genuine encounter and exchange between the Kwakiutl and their priest, as well as Brian’s essential differentiation of himself from other outsiders (including a visiting American anthropologist). It is a work of its time, but goes further and deeper in some important ways than other contemporary fiction did. The failure to veer into cliché is rooted in the author’s spiritual orientation; the last lines of her autobiography, Again Calls the Owl, are from Hooker’s Laws:
Though for no other cause, yet for this,
That posterity may know we have
Not loosely through silence
Permitted things to pass away as in a dream.
There is also abundant perspective from her months-long visit to the Kwakiutl and their fjords in the early 1960s. This extensive trip to British Columbia was the beginning of Craven’s friendship with the Rev. Eric Powell, the basis of the novel’s protagonist. Powell was a dedicated priest who served remote British Columbia communities for decades, but the terminal illness so important to the novel is fiction; Powell had a spinal injury and severe condition for which Craven says simply, “he swallowed pain pills.”
Margaret Craven (1901-80) was born in Montana but grew up in Washington when it was among the newest states admitted to the Union. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford, she began a career in journalism in her early 20s in the hope of working as a short-story writer and novelist, but suffered a major setback because of eye ailments, including early-onset cataracts, that made it difficult for her to write for long periods of time. She fell back on newspaper work for the San Jose Mercury Herald and became a regular contributor to The Saturday Evening Post for decades, but still longed to write longer-form fiction. Following a medical breakthrough that improved her eyesight significantly, she was 66 years old when she published her first novel.
Craven’s vision declined again after one more novel and an autobiography, but a posthumous collection, The Home Front (1981), pulled together a group of her shorter work for what had become an interested audience. She never married, living in Sacramento with her twin brother and mother until their deaths.
Craven’s work is notable for its employment of real literary skill to depict a world that would have been strange to many of her readers, particularly the Americans who read it with such eagerness after the 1973 CBS broadcast featuring Tom Courtenay of Doctor Zhivago and Dean Jagger of White Christmas and Elmer Gantry. (In an unusual decision for the time, all of the First Nations roles in the television adaptation were played by tribal members; it was filmed on the western side of Vancouver Island.)
She reflects with a mixture of surprise and delight in her autobiography about the commercial success of the book: “It is strange when a professional creative writer turns out a story that becomes so successful. It is not the critics who let him know. It is the readers.” And she brings humor to informing acquaintances in British Columbia that she would write about them. “I tried my best to make you a nice, plump, short, jolly bishop, but I couldn’t do a thing with you,” she tells a sometime Bishop of New Westminster, likely Godfrey Philip Gower (1899-1992).
The full half-century since the first publication of I Heard the Owl Call My Name has seen a sea change in relations between church bodies and North American indigenous persons. The Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Most Rev. Michael Peers, issued a detailed apology in 1993 for ecclesiastical support of residential schools that perpetrated decades of abuse and intergenerational trauma; it was issued in English, East Cree, French, Gwich’in, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Naskapi, Oji-Cree, and Plains Cree. In 2010, the Canadian church’s General Synod passed a motion repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery — the concept that European explorers “found” the lands already inhabited by indigenous persons — a decision the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops made in 2009. Today both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada support the spiritual leadership of indigenous persons on official levels in new contexts of jurisdictional, national, and international law.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name was a small if now largely forgotten step in a necessary healing, highlighting the hard work of disparate persons who found themselves sharing life and its difficulties because they shared a church and its Lord. The novel still repays careful reading for the beauty of its prose, the insightfulness of its narrative descriptions, and the sensitivity of its depiction of a priest changed by and changing for his people.
Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.