By Margaret Craven Essay
By Margaret Craven
This book is an inspiring experience to read is somewhat of an understatement. Though a very small book in terms of novels lately, this work is complete and in depth enough that nothing is left lacking. A young vicar, Mark Brian accepts an assignment to a remote Indian village in the Pacific Northwest of British Columbia. Kingcome itself seems to become part of the landscape instead of detracting from the natural beauty. The people, the Kwakiutl tribe, are as mysterious and reserved as the land they live in.
Their walnut colored faces and sad eyes speak of secrets and silent thoughts that Brian can not interpret at first. He notes to himself mentally as if they always seem to be waiting for something but he can never quite understand what. They treat him with respect and distance, a quiet reminder that he is an intruder, whether welcomed or not. He is the “white man” and therefore, far beyond being able to understand their circle of life and how they view that life. In return, Brian gives them that right to distance and struggles to be as unobtrusive a presence as he can be.
He sees this as a challenge that he has been sent to accomplish in order to better their lives and thus better his as well. His vicarage and church are in ramshackle condition, a far cry from any said civilized habitat he was accustomed to but upon receiving a post dated letter from his Bishop that he would receive a new “manufactured” vicarage, he sends a response declining the offer. He is determined to live as they live or as much as he can and open himself to their ways. It is not a feat easily accomplished. His strongest ally is Jim Wallace, a native designated to aid and help the young vicar.
Yet, Jim and Mark are just among a whole cast of fabulous and amazing characters from Calamity Bill, a forester, and to old Marta who is wise beyond even her extensive lifetime. Mark experiences the faith that the people hold in Christianity while the underlying teachings of their native spirituality is always present. Unknown to the vicar is the fact that he is dying and though his Bishop knew, he learns to accept all facets of life, even death, through the pragmatic and beautifully simplistic acceptance of the Kwakiutl people.
As to often when one race invades another, the conquering one imposes their way of thought and practices upon the other. One of the most startling evidence of government interference was the body of a drowned child that was required to lay in wait of burial for an undeterminable length of time. Stark decomposition had set in but still the Kwakiutl were forced to wait for the arrival of the Royal Mounted Police constable before the child could be buried.
Obviously an accidental death, nothing truly needing an inquest, the constable showed little regard for the tribe and their customs by delaying his visit as long as possible. Mark Brian got his first taste of governmental beau racy with that act. Even he in his regulated position of the parish’s minister could not override the law and bury the child within a respectful time. The government also imposed their restrictions of the Kwakiutl by the banning of their great potlatch dances, something that had been an important custom among the Indians for as long as memory served.
The people were still allowed to have potlatch dances, but on a much smaller scale and the sole reason being that the potlatch could deprive one tribe of sufficient substance and needs in order to satisfy their chief’s need to be generous. Though the Kwakiutl spoke very little of any criticism in the government’s interference, Brian sensed the deep resentment and silent anger that his charges felt to have their way of life altered so drastically.
The one issue they were the most verbal about was the requirement to send their older children to a school in Vancouver which taught them the ways of the white civilization and insisted that it was the one true way to live. All the ancient ways of Kingcome were swept away and belittled by this school. When the children came home from school, they were impatient with the time set ways of the elders of the tribe and their families could see the desire in them to leave the village for good and become part of the outside world.
It was certain doom for Kingcome, both as a village and as a people. It was an assurance that life as the Kwakiutl as they had been for centuries would fade away into history and cease as a separate nation. “Here in the village my people are at home as the fish in the sea, as the eagle in the sky. When the young leave, the world takes them and damages them. They no longer listen when the elders speak. They go and soon the village will go also. ” (Craven 62) In my opinion, the book was wonderfully enlightening and deeply moving.
As the time was spent with the people, Mark Brian did, as his Bishop hoped, gave a finer insight into the beauty of life and the deepset roots of people who were content with their world as it was. A rare happiness that though not clearly evident on the surface, it was a thread of strength that helped him face his own demise and still retain his faith in his own beliefs. I found no reason for changing the book or looking for any detraction or addition to as a complete work. It was a wonderful reading experience!
Craven, Margaret, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, Dell Publishing, 1973