CM Archive
CM Archive Book Review line

James Houston.

Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, c1983.
362pp, cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 0-7710-4258-2.

Grades 11 and up.
Reviewed by Mary Fallis.

Volume 12 Number 1
1984 January

Clearly, Eagle Song is adult reading. In his presentation of native life, the author shows continually the lusts that were indulged by characters, both white and Indian, as part of their response to events and characters.

The book gives a fictional account of life with the Nootka tribe on Vancouver Island in the years 1803-1805. After the massacre of their shipmates, two survivors of the crew of an American trading ship live with the Wolf clan for just over two years, captives of the chief. This part of the story is based on history. The main action of the plot is concentrated at the beginning when the American ship comes to the inlet, is ravaged and burned, and at the ending, when the two shipmen are traded back to an American ship. Though there is conflict in these sections and a very moving resolution, much of the book is a chronological account of Indian life, the tempo close to that of natural on-going processes.

There are three well-delineated characters: the narrator, Siam; Fog Woman, the "hacumb" (chief wife) of the Tyee; and Maquina, the chief. Siam, brother-in-law and chief adviser to Maquina, lives in the chief’s house and thus is a close observer of what is going on. Through his thoughts much gentle irony plays upon characters and events. Siam lets the reader know when others display guile; the reader at the same time smiles at Siam's guile and may see beyond the poses to a deeper significance. So, the vulnerability of these people shows the pride their very considerable culture gave them, their naiveté in standing up to the traders, and their blindness to the consequences of their actions; out of this hubris would come suffering.

There is quite a bit of humour in the book: the wife who recovers from a mortal illness when she finds her husband-looking around for her successor; and the magic display at the potlatch when the plans to have a wooden whale eject men from its belly at a signal to impress the potlatch guests turn into a fiasco.

A secondary teacher could find innumerable passages of beautiful description about aspects of the West Coast Indian culture, the two potlatches, for example, one with the Wolf people as guests when they view their hosts' generosity as "insults" and the other when Maquina and his Wolf people are hosts showing off the wealth they have to give away. There are burial rites, the funeral of a chief whose body is raised over his village in a magnificent carved post. And Siam notes occurrences in the natural world, tides and moonlight, time for the salmon to run, the seasonal changes, and is grateful for the gift of food nature provides for man.

One can read a certain amount of symbolism into the book, especially into the role of the swan gun that Maquina first covets, then misunderstands. An episode over the gun led to the massacre of the crew by the young men of the tribe; eventually, they were trapped into the return of the gun and the Eagle house paid the heavy price of a most precious life in the bargaining. A special print face, fine paper, and an artistic cover make the format of the book outstanding. There are; thirteen full-page illustrations, Houston's drawings of the characters.

Recommended for Canadian studies, anthropology, and literature collections in adult libraries.

Mary Fallis, Prince George, BC.
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