I read the book recently, after it won this year’s Canada Reads competition in which five books and their defenders faced off to eliminate and leave standing “one novel that could change Canada.” Reviews of The Orenda have been laudatory; apparently there was a “gasp” when it didn’t make the Giller Prize shortlist. It has received sharp criticism as well, especially from aborginal reviewers like Hayden King.
The story, in brief, begins when the family of Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl, is killed. She is captured–and adopted as daughter–by a Huron warrior, Bird, whose family was earlier massacred by the Haudenosaunee. The two nations are enemies, but other forces threaten them too, namely the European nations–here the French and their religious emisarries, the Jesuits or “crows.” These encounters and their tragic consequences are presented through the first-person, present-tense perspectives of Bird, Snow Falls, and the Jesuit priest, Christophe. (Orenda refers to the spirit/soul believed to be in everything.)
It bothers me when I’m not sure I can trust the history of historical fiction. I can’t quite forgive Tanis Rideout, for example, for fiddling with some (to me) significant facts in her beautifully written Above All Things, about George Mallory’s attempt at Everest. So I’m not sure what to think about the controversy over the history here, except that it seems more about interpretation than time line and facts. I’ve realized I’ll have to leave that tug-of-war to scholars of the (pre) Canadian period and focus on the story instead.
Stylistically, I found the novel somewhat slow-moving because nearly everything that happens passes through three voices whose tone is curiously similar, though this may have been intentional. I felt the characters didn’t quite inhabit themselves as much as their respective worldviews, customs, and gestures. I definitely enjoyed Boyden’s 2008 novel of contemporary aboriginal life, Through Black Spruce, more.
Nevertheless, perseverance in reading, as in life generally, often yields its rich rewards, and this time too: notably the “pondering” produced in the reader about the original First Nations-European encounters. The novels drives deep the misunderstandings, the misfirings, one after the other after the other, that characterized the exchange. The pallor of inevitability greys its nearly 500 pages. The balance of things was upset, “so something must come of that,” as Snow Falls says. What comes seems no one’s–and everyone’s–fault. The “chorus” (which speaks between the book’s main sections) asks, “If success is measured in one way, then how should we measure defeat?”
I recommend the book, then, for the story itself, and for its insights, some passages of wonderful description, and moments of connection, even communion, that occur between enemies. The first sentence is: “We had magic before the crows came.” And the last are: “Orenda can’t be lost, just misplaced. The past and the future are present.”