35 pages 1 hour read

Margaret Craven

I Heard The Owl Call My Name

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1967

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Summary and Study Guide


American journalist and short-story writer Margaret Craven released her debut novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, in the U.S. in 1973, where it became a New York Times best-seller. Originally published in Canada in 1967, the novel, like her later works, centers around the native population of British Columbia.


Mark Brian is a 27-year-old Anglican vicar sent by his bishop to the coastal village of Kingcome to live among the Kwakiutl Indians and patrol neighboring villages by boat. Mark has an unnamed terminal illness and no more than three years to live, a fact that the bishop conceals from him. An Indian named Jim Wallace, who is about the same age as Mark, accompanies him on his patrols and helms the boat until Mark passes his licensing exam. Throughout the novel, Mark is exposed to the visceral reality of death, beginning with his first day in the village, when he finds that the body of a drowned boy was being kept in the vicarage awaiting a burial permit. He learns of the “the swimmer,” the Kwakiutl’s name for salmon, which travels to the ocean in its youth and then swims upriver to spawn in the place of its birth before dying. Mark recognizes the beauty and dignity in this process, which will later mirror his own narrative arc.

From the start, Mark senses the sadness of the people of the tribe and doesn’t understand its cause. Gradually, he comes to realize that the village itself is dying as the language and customs are forgotten, and some of the younger generation, typified by a young man named Gordon, leave and integrate into white society. By respecting the customs of the Kwakiutl, Mark earns their trust and their help in building a new vicarage. Mark continues to become enmeshed in the customs and values of the village, to the extent that when he visits Vancouver, he can no longer relate to old college friends. When he arrived, Mark believed that every man in the village relied on himself alone, but he comes to realize that the people of Kingcome rely on each other for their fundamental survival.

While Mark is undergoing this transformation, the young people of the village—Jim, Gordon, Keetah, and Keetah’s sister—are making choices about the kinds of lives they want to live, and how deeply the village figures into those lives. After living and working in a mill town for a year, Jim, seemingly unchanged, has chosen to return to the village. Gordon, on the other hand, is a restless spirit and chooses to leave the village forever to pursue his dream of becoming the first of his tribe to go to college and enter into a profession. A white man seduces Keetah’s sister away from the tribe then abandons her, and her shame and lack of social support lead her to prostitution and death by drug overdose. Keetah herself likewise leaves the village for a love interest, Gordon, but unlike her sister returns to the village when she realizes it is integral to her identity. However, she does admire some aspects of white society and feels changed upon her return to the village. Before she leaves, she ensures that she conceives a child with Gordon so that she can bring a part of him back to the village as well. Recognizing that she and Jim share the same values, she plans to marry him, and Jim declares his intent to raise Gordon’s child as his own.

After a difficult winter, Marta Stephens, known as the grandmother of the village, notices the look of death on Mark’s face and writes to the Bishop to give him an opportunity to speak with Mark. Mark notices the Bishop’s distress, but the vicar does not tell him directly of his prognosis, saying only it is time for him to leave Kingcome. One night as Mark is returning from scattering the ashes of a Kwakiutl friend, he hears an owl call his name—which in Kwakiutl lore means that he will die. Mark suddenly recognizes that the Bishop’s distress is linked to his growing fatigue, and when he returns home he finds Marta waiting for him. He tells her about the owl, and she confirms that he is dying.

Mark is grief-stricken at the thought of having to leave Kingcome, which he now thinks of as his home, to die in a land that has become strange to him. Sensing this, the villagers ask him to stay and write the Bishop, who agrees. However, soon after Mark and Jim are caught in a landslide while out on patrol, which kills Mark. Knowing about the landslide and waiting for news, Keetah realizes that she loves both Mark and Jim equally. When she finds that only Jim has survived, Jim promises to compromise in their marriage for the sake of her happiness. On the night of Mark’s funeral, Marta and Peter, another village elder, think about his soul. Peter is certain that Mark’s spirit will return to Kingcome, the home that he loved, and so gets dressed and holds vigil in the night, waiting to greet him.