Most classic novels of cultural confrontation have been set in the tropics, where "the horror" is apt to take hold. In books like Melville's "Typee," Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Peter Matthiessen's "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," the clash between a primitive tribe and the fair-skinned intruders is blurred by the jungle. Its serpentine lianas and dripping shadows seem to be emanations from repressed western minds, and the struggle is not so much between peoples as between a person and his own psyche.
Canadian artist and novelist James Houston's anthropological fiction is refreshingly different. "The White Dawn" and "Spirit Wrestler" were set in the Arctic, where Houston once served as civil administrator of West Baffin Island. In "Eagle Song," Houston has focused on Vancouver Island, whose cedar-clean landscape is not conducive to hothouse introspection. "We are a people who only rarely place a foot inside the forest," says the Indian narrator. "Our food, our light, our way of traveling, all these good things come from the open rivers, the beaches, the estuaries, and most especially from the sea itself."
When a Boston trading ship anchors at the village of the Nootkan Eagle Clan (the book is based on an actual incident in 1803), there is no soul-searching among the Indians and no Anglo angst. Both the Eagle Clan and the Yankee crew are determined to maintain their standards, and their mutual misunderstandings are the unvarnished substance of the book.
The main characters are Maquina, the clan's petulant chief, and Siam, his brother-in-law and head of protocol. Siam is also the narrator, telling the story like Conrad's Marlow to an unspecified audience. The turmoil begins when the Indians board the ship to trade otter pelts for muskets. The captain takes a liking to Maquina and gives him an ornate, double-barreled gun. Ashore, Maquina overloads the gun with powder, fires, and blows off a hammer. Insulted because he assumes he got shoddy goods, Maquina storms back to the ship.
The captain's reaction is equally puerile--Maquina has abused a fine gift. The captain gives the Indian a shove. The next day, while trading is in progress, a sailor purposely trips a young Indian man. The Indians cannot tolerate this loutish behavior. A few days later they slaughter and behead all the Bostonians but two, who are spared by happenstance: a personable young ironsmith named John Jewitt (Jon Jay to the Indians) and a hulking sailmaker named John Thompson (Tom Sin). Maquina adopts John Jay, who adjusts splendidly to his new milieu, becoming conversant in the Nootkan language and taking a Nootkan wife. The obstinate Tom Sin hardly adjusts at all and insists that he and Jon Jay keep up a semblance of shipboard routine--e.g., shaving each other with sharpened clam shells. The plot turns on the expectation that the two white men will someday have a chance to be rescued.
There is also a subplot so interesting that it all but overshadows the primary one. The neighboring Black Fin people invite the clan to a potlatch, a ceremony in which the host lavishes gifts on the guests. Its original purpose was to celebrate the transferral of a chief's titles and privileges to his heirs, and the practice was common among Indian cultures. But in the Pacific Northwest, where the cornucopia of fish and otter lent itself to accumulations of surplus wealth and where early contact with the affluent white man unsettled the natives' sense of proportion, the potlatch decayed into a crass competition.
The Black Fin affair gets off to a profligate start before Maquina and his band even step ashore. The hosts bash a slave on the head and fling him on the gravelly beach so that his body can ease the landing of Maquina's longboat. More out of spite than squeamishness, Maquina orders a change of course and his boat crunches its way up the beach.
The advantage may be to Maquina, but it is short-lived. Tall Hat, the Black Fin chief, has prepared a deluge of gifts so ostentatious that Maquina is outclassed. What's more, Tall Hat has assured himself a unique place in the annals of squander by presiding as a corpse. Knowing he was near death, Tall Hat had the invitations sent out anyway.
Now, propped up in a "thick pillow of freshly cut strong-smelling cedar boughs placed there to mask the scent of death," dressed in finery, his face painted with intricate designs, the dead chief is a mocking presence at Maquina's humiliation. The question becomes whether Maquina can muster the loot and showmanship to out-potlatch his dead rival, and Jon Jay's skill at the forge comes into play as a crucial source of new wealth.
Both plots proceed through further misunderstandings to equivocal but convincing resolutions. Houston has an extraordinary ability to shape his material without seeming to impose a pattern on it. Satisfying as fiction, engrossing as anthropology, "Eagle Song" gives a vivid sense of what it must be like for unschooled men to encounter a stouthearted culture utterly different from their own.