The first dilemma in Margaret Craven's I heard the owl call my name arises within the clergy community, as a Bishop debates whether or not to tell his young Anglican missionary that the missionary only has "a little less than two years if he's lucky" (11). For some people, living out the last two years of a life in remote Indian villages in pristine, pastoral Canada would be the best way to "go out." But no matter; it's not an easy task to inform a relatively young man, no matter how much he loves the rich outdoor environment, that he's about to die.
What is presented to the reader is the conflict the Bishop faces, as to how and when to tell the young missionary (vicar) that he will die. When is the right time to tell anyone - whether in a religious genre, as this is, or an Indian genre - that he or she is going to die, and the timing is not certain?
Meanwhile, on page 14, readers begin to get a dose of death discussion. Caleb, the old man who was a mentor to the missionary, though not given to much conversation except nautical information, "dropped what surely could not, yet must be, godly counsel."
When you bury anybody, remember to look in the box the very last minute," said Caleb. "Forty years ago up at Fort Rupert I buried the wrong man, and even now the RCMP has not forgotten it."
This could be thought of as "foreshadowing" in the story, but in any event, it certainly sets the tone, or adds to the tone of death and dying, which, on page 17, continues: "Beyond the village, inches above the high tide mark, Mark saw two carved killer whales, topped by a full moon. 'It's only the grave of Johnny Ray who was drowned'...'When you come here to marry, to bury, to hold church in the school house, they will say to you, 'Johnny's hiding in the bush, and he steals things and scares our women'." So we know the Canadian Indians say a grave indicates that someone is "hiding in the bush."
Readers also know just how "rough and tumble" and backwoods this setting is, when I page 19, a good description is given of the hang-logger "Calamity Bill" (the opposite of Broadway's "Calamity Jane"?). Because his float is subject to its nails coming loose when boats pass to fast and create wakes to rough, he is known to come out of his A-Frame "shaking his fist and swearing" - but the most interesting and raw rural aspect of Calamity Bill is the fact that the inner of his two sets of long-legged underwear is "part of his skin." The putrid smell of rancid underwear just might be close to the smell of death itself, although the author may not have intended for that linkage.
Also on page 19, some interesting irony is presented, as the young vicar, Mark Brian, says to himself, "If man were to vanish from this planet tomorrow, here he would leave no trace that he ever was." He himself will "vanish" from the planet, but as to when he will indeed vanish, that remains a mystery.
"professional mourner" is introduced to readers on page 26 - an old Indian woman, one of three, who "wail" day and night when someone dies. This book is more than an interesting and dramatic story - it is something of a natural history book, giving readers a lot of information about how Indians in Canada live and what they believe in. In this case, a young boy had drowned, and his body was covered with a plastic sheet. The children who found the boy floating (and drowned), "thought he was a doll," which is a very sweet little image juxtaposed with the fact of death.
When Constable Pearson arrives (29) and sees the body, Mark says "it's a little late" for an autopsy, which certainly implies that the Indians have done some lancing or cutting on the corpse. It is so horrible, that the constable "bolted from the room...into the brush where he was very sick." This made the Indians laugh, though in Mark's memory of his first burial the tribe "all looked alike" and the woods were "brooding" - juxtaposition to Indians laughing over a sick constable.
This laughter and the depiction of the constable in a white shirt, tie, and a head like an ancient Roman bust, gives the reader a sharp contrast for the ways different cultures observe the dead and their burial. And after all, a young Roman Catholic missionary living in and amongst Native Canadians is in itself a dramatic disparity between cultures and beliefs. That is part of makes this book very interesting.
Death and dying" also applies to the trek of the humpback salmon that swim upstream, spawn, and then they die. These salmon start as fingerlings, and, "this is not sadness," Mark explains, "It is triumph." There's humor on page 53, after the Indian, Jim, shoots a bear. Mark can't find the bullet hole, and one of the Indians says that the bear "died of shock. It's the first time he's ever seen a vicar so far up on the mountain." That passage also shows respect the Indians are slowing showing toward the vicar Mark.
Dead in three months," the constable told Mark (84), showing Mark a picture (for positive I.D.) of the young Indian girl who died (Keeta's sister) after being abandoned in Vancouver and prostituting herself to stay alive. Mark "did not know that when he turned back in his own eyes was the depth of sadness which he had begun to understand," nor did he know of the coming sadness of his own death. And another death occurs on page 86, as a woman dies after giving birth. They "bathed" the body, "powdered it, and dressed it in its best clothes..."
Everyone in the village shared the death....here death was normal."
On page 104, the Bishop has visited the community, and had his chance to tell Mark about Mark's limited life span, but the Bishop passed on the chance. He did however, lift his hand (waving a kind of goodbye from the plane), "as if in blessing." And on page 150, the Bishop also has an opportunity to tell Mark of Mark's fate, but the Bishop does say that what every man must learn is "enough of the meaning of life to be ready to die." And then the Bishop tells Mark he will find a replacement for Mark soon, and "when you come out, you will come to me."
And on 155, Mark tells Marta that he "heard the owl call my name." Marta said, "Yes my son." The owl calling a person's name indicates that death is on one's doorstep. Then, ten pages later, after the young vicar had died - not of natural causes, which readers had been expecting - readers learn that the tribe spoke the Lord's Prayer ("Kunuh Umpa Laka ike Mayauntla Hyis...."), and it seemed likely to Peter the carver that "the soul of the young vicar would return to the village he had loved..."
To Dance with the White Dog
Though it may be difficult, to understand this story thoroughly, one must try to imagine what it's like being a very old man and hearing your children discussing what is to be done with you, now that you are frail and decisions must be made as to the rest of your life.
What's to become of..." The old man in the padded rocker? While he was pretending to be asleep, but hearing what his sons and daughters were saying, he only knew that he resented being treated like an "invalid" (2). While he knew they meant "well enough," and though he has listened to them "for more than fifty years," he hoped they would say what they felt needed to be said, and "get over it."
The author has craftily woven in direct allusions to death - avoiding the maudlin and bitterness that sometimes accompanies scenes of death and dying - within the narrative of this story; on page 4 the old man pulls his watch from his shirt pocket and sees it is twelve-forty: "It does not take long to die, he thought." And a paragraph later, at six o'clock: "I too, want to die as quickly, he thought" (5), recounting how his wife fell to the floor as part of the act of her dying.
And (10) readers are led into the image of a circus, of athletes flying through space when the coffin's strong nylon ropes are made into a simile: "like a prop in an aerial act."
There is very often something good for families that occurs at funerals, and this funeral was no exception. "This is only the second time we've all been together, in the same room," the old man's…