Friday, August 05, 2011


Our book today is one I've mentioned several times here at Stevereads: it's William Service's slim, gemlike 1969 book Owl, about the year he and his family spent sharing their house with a tiny orphaned screech owl. From the first day, a drama of mutual discovery unfolds, and Service records it all in brief, impressionistic jump-cut segments, many of which are as sharp and well-turned as poetry. "I enter it here," he tells us at one point, "that an owl on a stump has many acquaintances but few friends" - but it's quickly apparent that Owl (no other name seemed right) has found an entire house full of friends here - Service's narrative is unabashedly affectionate, and the book critics of its day responded in kind. Hal Borland called it "One of the most thoroughly delightful books I have read in years," the Boston Herald reviewer said it was slim and gemlike, and the great Richard Schickel said, "I cannot think of a book this year that has delighted me more than Owl." There were reprints, there was a brief vogue, hundreds of copies were given as holiday gifts, and a generation of hapless and doomed screech owl chicks found themselves in cages at pet stores. All of which was rather strange given the subject, as Service himself is the first to point out:
An owl is an odd creature to keep about the house. Also for forest, hedgerow, meadow to keep. An odd creature anywhere.

The heart of the book's appeal is the perfect match between Service's lean, quietly wonder-struck reports and that odd little creature he's scrutinizing. We've already seen the owl-memoir when it's written at meaty length by a trained naturalist. What we have in Owl is something very different: this is much closer to the list of initial observations Dr. Watson makes about his new flat-mate Sherlock Holmes in "A Study in Scarlet." Both chroniclers are mystified by their subjects, and like Watson, Service eventually comes to accept that he won't know everything:
Many people want to pet Owl, which sometimes he likes and sometimes he doesn't. His early way out of too much handling was to squawk and take off. Now, more likely than not, and depending on how well he knows the person, he will simply turn and walk a few feet away. Trust is too strong a word, but he has the expectation that he will not be chased and hugged to death. If it's my wife involved, Owl will most likely get his "huggle" no matter what. From inside the embrace he glares yellow outrage. Or perhaps he has found bliss. He is inscrutable.

Nevertheless, this short book is full of warm little memories that cluster in the mind long after the book is closed:
A Screech Owl Is Not a Lap Dog

... ours, nevertheless, does not conform to the image of the lonely hunter in his forest who has just two questions for anything that moves: Can I catch and eat it? Or can it catch me? Owl, as we have seen, likes to be tweaked and groomed, especially around the head and neck. Pull away before he has had enough, and a claw flicks out to retrieve the finger (You're a nice bird, Owl.)

Readers of living-with-animal books like this one will know how it all ends, of course. One day Service and his family are enjoying "that trivial, emphatic presence" same as always, and the next day it's gone. The whole thing is managed with such fine, gentle brush-strokes that it can take the reader a couple of readings to feel the pain underneath the words:
He has left a very small blank - precisely owl-shaped - in the daily routine ... a discontinuity which things still get caught on. And memoranda. A feather may yet swirl from a suddenly opened closet door, or come down with a book from a shelf. A fleck of lime in an angle somewhere. Punctured houseplants and page corners nipped off. We keep finding one more pellet.

Readers won't learn the evolution and natural history of owls or even screech owls in this book, nor will they learn much about Bill Service or his family. Owl is the story of pure intersection - brief, unpredictable, and surprisingly powerful. As far as I know, the book is out of print - but you should hunt down a copy and spend an hour reading it. Small as it is, you'll remember this book vividly for the rest of your life.


JC said...

What a delightful little piece!

Anonymous said...

I adored this quirky little book.I like reading stories about animals. It is very subtle and original.The illustrations add to the book's appeal.