"The first time was the anniversary...the fiftieth anniversary for you and Mama..." That itself is sad, that a nuclear family had not enjoyed the experience of sharing time together, but also it is sweet that now they are brought together, albeit the occasion was made possible by death. Does it take a death to understand how vitally important life and families are in this world? Probably, the answer for many is, yes, it does take a death.
Another note of sadness (11) is presented when "no one knew" how many grandchildren there were in the old man's family. How could that be? "You'd think somebody would know how many grandchildren there are," said Sam. Jr. And indeed, the only one who did know the number of grandchildren is "mamma" - who is now passed on.
As the story continues, the old man thinks of himself as a turtle as he pulls weeks in his nursery, bringing in another poignant image for readers to try to connect with this 87-year-old widower. One down, one to go, is a cryptic way to look at this elderly couple. And while he works in the nursery, his children and Neelie (the long time house-cleaning woman and friend of he and his wife) were "rummaging like thieves through cabinets and closets and drawers, filling boxes to be carried away."
This is part of the post-death experience for all families: family and friends rummaging through things that belonged to the deceased, deciding what should be done with these things, who should get them. The author has done a good job with these details.) "He would not question them" (16) [for] it was their ritual - a rite of daughters. And of Neelie. Neelie deserved to be there. Neelie knew the house better than any of them."
The mysterious, mystical dog that shows up to help reduce the sadness that the old man is experiencing, arrives in the story on page 25. "Whitest dog he'd ever seen...nose as long as a greyhound's." And seeing the dog reminds the old man that he had killed "diseased, slow-dying animals that needed the kindness of euthanasia" in the past, and that he had "lied" to his wife, and not told her about the killings.
This is a point in the story that produces conflict and irony: Sam, the old man, is just getting over his wife's passing, and a dog arrives that could provide comfort for him, and he thinks of killing it. By page 42, the dog hasn't been killed, has not disappeared, and is in fact running along beside the old man's moving truck as he approached the cemetery where his wife was buried: "leaping gracefully in the field beside the road, a white blur, like a burning star falling and rising, falling and rising." By page 44, the man and dog bond, as the canine "slipped the jaw of its hear into his palm."
This part of the story is very sweet, as the dog eases the pain of Sam; it is a well-known fact that animals are wonderful comfort for the elderly, particularly in times of stress, and this story is a page out of that book.
In the first book, I heard the owl call my name, readers are given insights on the relationships between Indians and a missionary, between a missionary and his Bishop supervisor, between a Canadian lawman and Indians, between natives and The Church - and how the realities of death and dying are approached within those cultural differences and those personalities. In this second story, readers are treated to the relationships between bereaved father and his children, between an elderly man and a white dog who mysteriously shows up.
It is interesting to note that author Terry Kay, in an interview (Summer, 1994) with Publishers Weekly, reports that "Yes, the white dog was absolutely real. My mother did suddenly die of a heart attack at age 75, leaving my father alone. The dog did show up days after she died, to take up with Daddy." Kay added that he received many letters from readers who had "similar experiences."
Reminders of Sam's son's death, meanwhile, come back to Sam as he drives (121) toward what he thinks is Madison, and sees a boy hitchhiking, filling him "with ancient regret." And on page 176, the white dog has gone, and Sam says in his journal, "I do not think it will be long now" before his own death. And readers are left with Sam's belief that the white dog actually carried with her the spirit of Sam's wife. Quite a mystical, magical idea, to ease pain of death and dying. At the gravesite, his son, James, saw "across the chest of sand on the grave of Robert Samuel Peek...the paw prints, prints so light they could have been made by air" (178).
Craven, Margaret. (1973). I heard the owl call my name. New York: Doubleday.