Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

The Orenda

by Joseph Boyden

Now that The Orenda has arrived, it’s hard not to think of Joseph Boyden’s first two novels (Three Day Road and its Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning follow-up, Through Black Spruce) as preludes to this magnificent literary beast. It’s not just the historical sweep of the narrative or the juxtaposition of belief systems at the birth of the nation we now call Canada that lend this novel a sense of urgency and significance – and its literary blockbuster feel. (The Orenda will be this year’s The Book of Negroes, I suspect.) Rather, what drew me into, and kept me enraptured with, The Orenda over nearly 500 pages is Boyden’s struggle – as a writer, a Canadian, and a human being – to reconcile the irreconcilable.

How do you revere native life while also exposing its violent, sadistic past? Can the demonization of European colonial powers (the French in this instance) and the cultural genocide they were responsible for exist alongside the possibility that their motives were in essence compassionate? These are dangerous and turbulent waters, but Boyden – himself of native Canadian ancestry – dives in with remarkably vigorous yet lyrical prose.

The history may be complicated, but the novel’s narrative is relatively simple: three characters take the reins and the story, set in the early 17th century, unfolds more or less chronologically. In no particular order, the narrators are: Christophe, a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, an Iroquois teen of the Haudenosaunee nation kidnapped by the Wendats (a Huron nation); and Bird, a warrior mourning (and avenging) the deaths of his wife and two daughters at the hands of the Iroquois.

Boyden utilizes the tripartite narrative to examine what all three characters learn about themselves and others – and, in turn, what we learn about “them” and “us,” then and now. Christophe explains the significance of the title: the orenda is the life force that, according to the Hurons, belongs not just to humans but to “every last thing” in the natural world. It’s the young Snow Falls who recognizes the travesty of her people’s war with the Wendat: “We speak similar tongues and grow the same food and hunt the same game. Yet we’re enemies, bent on destroying one another.”

This observation aside, I can’t help but see something both haunting and spectacular in the cycle of destruction that Boyden so expertly evokes. The novel is punctuated by acts of unspeakable cruelty and, yes, savagery – human on human, human on animal, and animal on animal. It climaxes in a bloody battle between the Haudenosaunee on one side and the Huron and Jesuits on the other. The ritualistic torture of the captured – euphemistically referred to as “caressing” – is orgiastic. Yet there is a meditative, poetic quality to even the most stomach-churning encounters.

Nowhere is this moral ambiguity more evident than in the characterization of Bird, a grieving father who tries (and fails) to break the circle of violence, whose revenge plot ultimately ends with a full-scale war in which he orchestrates his fair share of skull crushing and throat slitting.

I don’t want to give the impression that the horror in The Orenda is its grandest achievement, but the narrative flags somewhat when it tries to depict everyday life inside the palisades. Boyden goes out of his way to suggest that his characters’ world is not really all that different from ours, and the results are surprisingly prosaic. There’s teen bullying and talk of big tits and unplanned pregnancies, not to mention streams of passions and desires, fulfilled and otherwise. Bird gets it on the side from Gosling, a very sympathetic medicine woman, who also doubles as a mother figure for the maturing Snow Falls. Christophe views the Hurons’ way of life as sinful, while intimating a homoerotic fixation on Bird and jailbait-worthy admiration for Snow Falls’s beauty.

The Orenda comes to us almost a year after the Idle No More movement drew Canadians’ attention to the fact (which should be obvious) that, while we share this land with its original keepers, we have a dismal history of subjugating them. Boyden frames each of the novel’s three parts with short laments written in the collective voice of native people for a time when they had and understood the orenda. This prophetic writing positions Boyden’s novel as both a dream in the spiritual, native sense and a wake-up call in our more alarmist, modern one. It’s an attempt at, if not truth, then at least a reconciliation between the past and present of this land.