The Malahat Review
Summer 2004, Issue 147

by Sigrun Maria Kristinsdottir

The hero in Susan Dobbie's historical novel is a native Hawaiian immigrant who, in the early part of the 19th century, signs up with the Hudson's Bay Company and works as a labourer in Fort Langley on British Columbia's Fraser River. Dobbie herself emigrated from Scotland to Canada, and there is little doubt that this experience colours her point of view, for she has done an excellent job of showing cultures in turmoil, and how people live through it, along with the effects of immigration.

Themes of survival, colonization love and dislocation run constant throughout When Eagles Call. The cultural changes are caused by the white settlement first of Hawaii and later of Canada's west coast. Kimo Kanui is a restless young man who chooses to leave his home in Hawaii after his mother marries for the second time. At Fort Langley, he learns the Company expects him to fight First Nations belligerents and he is horrified that he must take human life. The choice is to kill or be killed and the reader can neither condemn Kimo and his coworkers for taking up arms, nor the First Nations tribes for attacking the white trading post...

Dobbie's story is gripping and the varied and convincing details make for an excellent history lesson. Passages such as this one about cutting logs make the novel a delight.

Moku pushed on the down stroke from above the pit and pulled up on the way back. Kimo, below, did the reverse. He found it easy at first, but the non-stop push-and-pull soon turned painful, with sawdust drizzling down his head and shoulders, choking him. After a while, the dust seemed to take on a will of its own and grew malevolent. It collected in his ears and stuck to the damp clumps of hair on his sweating scalp. It burned his eyeballs. It crawled through his lips, invading his mouth, making him gag and cough and spit, and crept up his nostrils, making him sneeze....

Some readers might have problems with the fact that despite its two minority main characters the story is rather white-centred. Rose's interest in politics, for example, is traced to her white father, and few characters seem to question the white man's reach. However, the novel is neither anti-colonialist nor a feminist text. It is simply the story of two people in a historic setting, and although Dobbie's characters are somewhat philosophical about white settlement, they do not fight it as contemporary readers might expect. Neither Kimo nor the majority of the First Nations people we meet in the novel wonder how or if colonization could or should be stopped. "White men cast a long shadow and living in that shadow wasn't easy," Kimo thinks. He knows "that when whites move in, they become the new alii (chiefs), and natives come to feel inferior. This breeds sickness in the soul, for a man must hold his head high." Kimo thus contemplates the effects of colonization upon the colonized, but not its cause nor what it means for the future. And perhaps it is a realistic 19th century reaction - to question, but not to fight the invaders - for what matters to Kimo and Rose, as well as to the Kwantlen people, is survival.