Book Review: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
by Joseph Boyden
Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2013
We own a cottage in Huronia (central Ontario, Canada), so for decades I have frolicked in the geographical area where the less-than-frolicsome historical events from which Joseph Boyden drew his inspiration took place. We canoe for pleasure on the same waters where First Nations people and the French engaged in life-saving trade and life-ending battles. We spend touristy afternoons at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, a reconstruction of the 17th-Century French Jesuit mission where the peaceful coexistence and treacherous torture took place.
Perhaps familiarity with the area and the history helps me to visualize this novel. Perhaps the life force—the orenda—of the time lives on through the Canadian Shield granite upon which those people walked. Whatever the reason, The Orenda resonates with me.
Joseph Boyden uses three narrators to tell of the first encounters of Jesuit priests with the Wendat people and of the conflict between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Wendat (Huron). The three narrators cover all angles of the story: Snow Falls is an Iroquois teenager who becomes the victim of a revenge kidnapping by the Wendat, Bird is the Huron warrior who kidnapped her, and Christophe is a Jesuit priest who wants to convert these “sauvages.”
Boyden’s story has no “good guys” or “bad guys.” In their pursuit of revenge, conquest or conversion, all his wonderfully complex characters perpetrate acts of kindness and villainy. Thanks to Boyden’s skill at characterization and his instinct to honour the integrity of a story, we understand his characters’ acts of villainy in those circumstances, even if we could not condone them in today’s society.
We all know how the story ends—the big-picture story of First Nations and European relations in North America—and that knowing flows like an unseen undercurrent in the reader’s mind. When Bird questions how the “crows” (the priests in the black wool cassocks) will effect his people, when Wendat warriors struggle with alcohol, and when Samuel de Champlain’s men hand over the first gun, we know. It adds an eerie shadow effect to the reading.
The only concern I have about this book—the only thing that made me stop reading and step outside of the magic of the story for a moment—is the use of present tense by Christophe in certain circumstances. I like present tense stories, and it worked beautifully for Snow Falls and Bird, who we imagine relating their version of events via the ancient oral storytelling traditions of the First Nations. Christophe, however, writes to his superior in France or in a diary. Him we imagine writing, so he needs past tense. When he is pulled under water by the sodden weight of his heavy wool cassock he could not have been scribbling notes at the time, so a first-person, present-tense account doesn’t work.
My stickiness about implausibilities of tenses aside, I admire this novel. Boyden never shies away from gory details, so when you read his books, expect the brutal truth. The Orenda has torture scenes that might alarm and repulse some delicate sensibilities.
But then the true events of history often do.
I recommend any book by Joseph Boyden. Through Black Spruce is my favourite. Three Day Road is harrowing but worthy.
Posted on October 22, 2014, in Book Club, Book reviews, Books I bought, Canada Reads, Fiction, History, Penguin Group, Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominees and tagged Haudenosaunee, Huron, Iroquois, Jesuit, Jesuit priests, Joseph boyden, Martyrs Shrine, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, The Orenda, Wendat. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.