Independent Reading A Guide to
I Heard the Owl Call My Name
“The myths are the village and the winds and the rain. . . . The village is the talking bird, the owl, who calls the name of the man who is going to die. . . .” The Novel at a Glance
I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a novel about a clash of cultures. The plot focuses on a young Anglican vicar, unaware that he has only a few years to live, who is sent to work among the Tsawataineuk, an American Indian tribe of the Kwakiutl - – (kwä´ke·oo t´’l) people in British Columbia. Setting: Kingcome Village, British Columbia, during an eighteen-month period in the 1960s. Protagonist: Mark Brian, a newly ordained Anglican vicar in his twenties. Conflicts: The major conflict in the novel concerns Mark’s efforts to gain the trust of the villagers and later to recognize and accept the fact of his impending death. The Kwakiutl people face a conflict between life as they know it and modern ways. Jim, a “local boy,” and Gordon, a “city boy,” clash over Keetah, and Keetah struggles with her love for Gordon and her desire to stay in the village. Resolution: Mark is accepted by the villagers, who invite him to remain with them until he dies. Mark accepts the inevitability of his death (although he is killed in a landslide before illness overtakes him). The villagers to some degree accept the inevitability of change. Keetah marries Jim. Themes: Clashes of cultures might be unavoidable, but they are often accompanied by tragedy. In human life, as in nature, change is inevitable. Celebrating life prepares one for death. Title: According to tribal tradition, an owl calling the name of a person means that person will soon die. The title foreshadows the novel’s ending. popular novel, though it deals with serious problems faced by its characters, ends by celebrating life.
Northwest Coast. One of six major cultural regions of native peoples of North America, the Northwest Coast extends from southern Alaska to northern California. Northwest peoples include the Kwakiutl and the Haida. Notable features of Northwest cultures were an economy based largely on salmon fishing; a mythology that was elaborated in symbolic, carved door posts and totem poles; the central role of the cedar tree and potlatch celebrations involving elaborate meals and present-giving. Extensive contact with Europeans in the eighteenth century resulted in the spread of disease and conversion to European ways. Only in the 1940s did native groups begin to repopulate the villages and revive their traditional languages and art. Vocabulary. Terms like Cedar-man, potlatch, Kwákwala (the language of the Kwakiutl people), and La-hell (a guessing game played with bones) are explained in context. The abbreviation RCMP stands for Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
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The Bishop, Anglican church official; a wise and sensitive man. He is addressed in person and in Mark’s thoughts as “my lord.” Mark Brian, newly ordained vicar in his mid-twenties, assigned to Kingcome Village and the surrounding area; a generous, sensitive, hard-working man who has only a few years to live but does not know it. Jim Wallace, Kwakiutl man in his mid-twenties who serves as Mark’s guide and becomes his friend. Wallace wants to marry Keetah. Caleb, retired Anglican cleric who teaches Mark to handle and maintain a forty-foot diesel launch and tells him to use the royal Victorian “we” when he speaks. Calamity Bill, hand-logger and crotchety loner, famous for never removing the inner of his two pairs of long red underwear. I Heard the Owl Call My Name 1
The central character and the Kwakiutl people touch each other deeply and conduct their lives in direct relationship with the cycle of nature. One young woman, lured to the outside world, dies of a drug overdose; other deaths occur. Students will recognize that this
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