I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven is a super good Young Adult (YA) book about the creeping, not the clashing, forces of modernity into tribal life. It is not a heartwarming story, nor a tearjerker, but simply a tightly written narrative that tells the story of a young vicar, Mark, who is assigned to a remote and ancient village located in the Kwakwaka’wakw community of Kingcome Inlet in British Columbia, north of Vancouver. Mark is an outsider; he does not stay that way, unlike the school teacher who has lived and taught the village children for years. It is a simple, yet complex way of life. Simple in the stark manner of the subsistence lifestyle—fishing and hunting are the primary ways of providing food. Modern conveniences are a world away for the most part. Complex because strangers cannot just walk in and be made to feel at home. The school teacher is an example. He remains a stranger even to the vicar. To be part of the village, as Mark ultimately does, involves learning and adopting to some degree and in a heartfelt way the habits and traditions of the village, from day-to-day living off the land and the river, to the times for celebration with the dances and feasts that have come down from ancient times, to preparing for death through letting go and the rites of burial.
As a YA novel, most of what would be truly shocking or hard for a youth to understand and accept is foretold in a subtle manner by Craven. I Heard The Owl Call My Name is not for young children; older children and teenagers, yes. Craven does not avoid hard or controversial topics but her treatment of them is appropriate. For youths who have been exposed to more, probably there is nothing of shock value in the book. It is a coming of age book that is perfect for a youth who has lived a somewhat sheltered life, if that is possible in this day and age.
It is the sheltering of life, the sheltering of a way of life from most of what is modern while understanding the pull of modernity on the youth that is the tightrope that Mark must walk. In his ministry among the villages that make up the Kingcome Inlet, he sees the deserted villages. The old have died out years before as the youth have left for the bigger world or in some cases, found new homes by banding together with other villages. Mark counsels for non-judgmental understanding that the youth must make their choice, and be able to live with their choice. Whether they can return and live between two worlds or must give up one world for another is the question.
This question is the dilemma faced by not just aboriginal cultures but by small towns. With modernity comes conveniences and also vices. It is the infiltration through a slow seepage of alcohol and high stakes gambling and to a lesser extent, mostly seen in the outside world, of drugs and prostitution that Mark must help the tribe to cope with. Change will happen, Mark knows. Will the village survive? Can those that remain adapt, find a way to compromise, live with some of modern life, while rejecting other parts. That is the story Craven tells. It is also the story of all but the remotest of communities.
For a contemporary example of a village that has sought to maintain its independence, through the absolute ban on alcohol and opting out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, see Gambell, Alaska.