On Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda

61zg5MSMHkL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU15_Well, what does one say about Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda?

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 emissaries, 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.”

9 thoughts on “On Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda

  1. Hayden King’s review speaks of the universality of violence among humans and laments the fact that Boyden in the Orendas singles out the Indians for their brutality and savagery thus promoting old stereotypes of the Indians as savages. Was that your impression as well? I haven’t read the book.

    • If perhaps I had any impression of earlier First Nations peoples, at least as portrayed in more recent years, it was one of living peacefully with the land. So I have to say that the torture portrayed in the book — a particular custom in which a number of enemies are “caressed” with torture over several days, and in which they also show their nobility by enduring it — took me aback a little. Because it’s so “personal” as Boyden puts it, it makes a big impression and is hard to read. And in this particular story, it happens to be the warring Huron and Haudenosaunee who do the violence, and the latter, as King says, who seem the constant threat. So if that’s a stereotype, I guess it underlines it. The Europeans–in this story–do their damage by the diseases they bring in, and the alcohol and weapons they provide. And their huge misunderstanding of the native ways. But somehow you feel that this is a meeting of two worlds in which no one comes off completely well or completely badly.
      The Jesuit priest always refers to the people as “sauvages” (using the French spelling) and so we hear that over and over, but I think the readers know that this is his Eurocentric view and that it was totally unfair. As were some of the Huron impressions of him.
      — I was struck by a scene very early on (so not a spoiler) in which Snow Falls, the girl who is captured and has just seen her family killed, catches sight of the priest’s crucifix and she thinks it’s an image of her dead father. So the priests carry about constantly this image of “torture” too, and eat his “flesh” and so on!
      Here’s a brief video of Joseph Boyden responding to criticism of the violence:http://www.cbc.ca/player/Shows/Shows/Q+with+Jian+Ghomeshi/ID/2440794647/
      Thanks, Elfrieda!

  2. Those are great opening and closing sentences, Dora, and your review seems generous to me. My writing group member Ervin Stutzman is taking up the challenge of writing through an aboriginal voice in the next volume of his trilogy that begins with the newly-published Jacob’s Choice. Are you familiar with the story? Ervin is working with Native Americans and historians and really wants to make his story “true” to both historical facts and emotional realities. Hard work!

    • I’ve heard of this story, yes, but not read it yet. — You’re so right, Shirley, historical fiction (though this tells a “true” story, right?) has its unique challenges, especially when it involves taking on the voice of another culture. Outsiders can so easily be accused of misappropriation so I’m glad to hear of his working relationship. Thanks for the link! –Joseph Boyden has some First Nations ancestry and is well poised, I think to bridge the cultures.

  3. I appreciated reading your perspective on this novel, Dora. I just finished it last week and found reaction similar to yours in many ways. In particular, I resonate with this sentence: “It bothers me when I’m not sure I can trust the history of historical fiction.” I suppose there is no such thing as a neutral portrayal of any historical event, but this one seems particularly prone to being heavily politicized given our current cultural moment.

  4. Off-topic, but I can find no other way to email you, Ms. Dueck! I am trying to find out if your aunt Margaret Harder was the translator of Nicholas Fehderau’s A Mennonite estate family in southern Ukraine. I am cataloging the book for the Mennonite Historical Library and need to distinguish its translator from all the other Margaret Harders. Thanks in advance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s