A Swimmer's Tale
ENGAGINGLY ENOUGH, the first new best selling work of fiction in the U.S. for the new year of 1974 turns out to be a fine, small, odd book set in a Canadian Indian village. It was written more than eight years ago, and considering the delay, one might assume that the manuscript, scribbled by some tribal chieftain, had perhaps moldered under a totem pole until discovered by a nosy anthropologist or Royal Canadian Mountie. Not so. The author is an energetic, white-haired American woman, now 72, named Margaret Craven. The history of her book, from benign neglect to some national celebrity, offers wry commentary on the ways of commerce and the world of publishing.
Nine years ago, dutifully wearing a skirt because she'd been told that Canadians can't stand American women in slacks, Miss Craven journeyed north by small boat from Vancouver into the Queen Charlotte Straits of British Columbia in search of adventure and material. Her trip ended at the top of King-come Inlet, in a village of the Kwakiutl Indians. Kingcome is a place of icy water, deep, fir-trimmed inlets, returning salmon, foraging killer whales, overwhelming beauty and, for the once proud Kwakiutls, overwhelming sadness. Even the young are not sure they can face going "outside" to school and trying to live like white men. But they all know that the old tribal ways are dying.
Margaret Craven, a journalist and short-story writer, stayed on for weeks at Kingcome: listening, interviewing, taking notes. Like many another writer in similar circumstances, she resolved that she would get it all down before it was gone forever. What she finally produced was I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a blend of fact and imagination that can better be described as a prose elegy than a novel.
Boiled Candlefish. The device that transforms the book into fiction is rude enough. Everything that Margaret Craven swiftly experienced and loved about the Kwakiutls is gradually learned by a young Anglican vicar, Mark Brian. He is fatally ill but does not know it, and has been sent to the village by his bishop to "learn enough of life to be ready to die." Much of Mark's story is presented as a marvelously compact and compelling semi-documentary. The reader meets the old and the young of the village, learns that much of the tribe's food is customarily spread with a kind of butter called gleena, made from slow-boiled candlefish, and is convinced that the elders mysteriously know whenever a stranger is coming. The Book of Common Prayer and Indian rituals reinforce each other as Mark helps the Kwakiutls transfer their tribal dead from a dilapidated tree-house burial site to newly hallowed ground.
Toward the end, creaky moments occur (Mark, for example, eventually learns that he is about to die, but he is killed off through a highly fortuitous landslide). No matter. As the book progresses, the plight of the Kwakiutls, poised on the edge of an uncertain future with only memories of the past to guide them, poignantly parallels and illuminates Mark's fate (and indeed the fate of Everyman) at the point of death. He finds himself trying to draw metaphorical comfort from the cycles of nature, and such recurring experiences as the fact that often when the boat that he and an Indian friend used to visit distant parishes seemed headed straight into a steep island cliff, "at the last moment they found some little finger of sea waiting to lead them on." Mark's only close kin is a twin sister, and he learns that the Indians, who revere the salmon and refer to it as "the swimmer," regard twins as somehow magical and call them "swimmers" too. Briefly he ponders the salmon's mysterious movement across the world to a fulfillment that occurs only at the moment of death.
These are ancient consolations. For the most part without undue bathos, Margaret Craven lends them a somber dignity and even a kind of resigned joy that seems neither foolish nor delusive.
Yet when she finished the book in 1966 and her agent offered it around, New York publishers did not want to buy. It was "beautifully written," they said, but also offbeat, old fashioned, occasionally sentimental, not very dramatic. Clarke, Irwin, a Toronto publishing house, did buy it, however. Launched with little publicity in 1967, it eventually sold 48,000 hardback copies—a considerable success in Canada.
It was not until 1973, after the General Electric Theater bought the film rights, that New York publishers finally became interested. The U.S. edition was planned for the late spring of 1974 until CBS and the G.E. Theater announced a pre-Christmas TV showing, and I Heard the Owl Call My Name was rushed into bookstores in late December. The movie was not shot in Kingcome, and as Mark Brian, British Actor Tom Courtenay mainly conveyed the kind of constrained sanctity that gives religion a bad name. Almost overnight, and for the wrong reasons, an indifferent film helped turn a good book into a bestseller.
Margaret Craven, who is at work on a new book in Sacramento, Calif., where she has lived for 22 years, says she does not need "huge amounts of money." But she is naturally glad that more people are going to reflect upon Kingcome village and its people. Like Mark Brian, she is a "swimmer." Her own twin brother Wilson died in 1971 after a long fight with cancer. In I Heard the Owl Call My Name, an old woman, probing back into the lost customs of her childhood, recalls: "And the young men strolled through the village singing the old love songs, and the songs were always of absence and of sorrow, and they spoke from the heart." Margaret Craven understands that kind of love song very well.