To say that The Orenda is a compelling read would be an understatement. Reading Boyden’s latest novel was for me an intense experience which I think will haunt me for a long while. It is not an easy, comfortable read; it is, in fact, provocative, demanding that we examine our history with an unflinching eye: “What’s happened in the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason the future is always just a breath away” (487).
This historical epic is set in the mid-1600s in Huronia at a time when the Hurons and the Iroquois are involved in skirmishes just as the Jesuits arrive and begin their conversion campaign. A member of each of these three groups serves as a narrator: Bird is the warrior leader of the Wendat (Huron) nation; Snow Falls is a young Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl whom Bird captures and adopts in retaliation for the Iroquois killing his wife and daughters; and Christophe is a priest, whom the Hurons call Crow, who has come to convert the “sauvages” to Catholicism.
One of the aspects of the novel that is impressive is the characterization. All of the main characters emerge as complex characters with both negative and positive traits. Bird is fierce and vengeful, but also capable of great love; Snow Falls is self-centred and vindictive but possesses an admirable feistiness. Christophe is narrow-minded, but his dedication is unquestionable. Furthermore, each character grows and develops. Bird acknowledges how his actions led to an escalation of violence: “I acted without thinking about what I was doing for the long term (111).” Snow Falls initially thwarts all attempts to integrate her into her adoptive family and accept Bird as a father, but she comes to realize that Bird and her father are similar: “My adopted father, Bird. Is he like you once were, my real one? I remember you were considered great by our people. I remember you were loved very much. You were like Bird, were you not” (198)? The priest feels racially superior, but comes to see the Hurons as “more generous and even gentle than any I’ve ever had the pleasure to know” (459). These three fully developed and dynamic characters demonstrate Boyden’s skill, but what is also exceptional is that even the minor characters (e.g. Fox, Gosling, Gabriel) are nuanced individuals.
What is also impressive is Boyden’s unwillingness to blame. Each of the three parts of the novel has a prologue spoken by a chorus of First Nations voices. The first begins with an admonition: “It’s tempting to place blame, though loss should never be weighed in this manner” (3). The role of the priests in the decimation of native culture is not diminished, but the second prologue cautions, “It’s unfair, though, to blame only the crows, yes? It’s our obligation to accept our responsibility in the whole affair” (153).
One cannot help but admire the writer’s balanced depiction. Christophe represents the ignorant Europeans who bring diseases that have a devastating impact on the aboriginal peoples, but he proves to be a man of compassion and courage. The Jesuits attack native beliefs, but are pawns as well; Christophe, for example, wrestles “with the grave worry that our work is being exploited by those who wish not for the souls of the sauvages but for the riches of the land, and that they are using us as the tip of the spear for their earthly gains” (141). The Iroquois are feared for their brutality, but after ritually torturing two Iroquois captives, Bird states, “’These two are the bravest men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting’” (276). The Iroquois torture captives mercilessly, but the Hurons are equally cruel in their “caressing.” And then their savagery is contrasted with their unstinting generosity; Bird describes a feast he hosts: “As is the custom, I refuse the food but instead make sure everyone has everything they desire” even though, by giving away all of his food, he knows, “Tomorrow, I will have nothing” (380 – 381).
It is obvious that Boyden did considerable research for the writing of this book. His depiction of daily life among the Hurons is detailed. The Feast of the Dead (79 – 84) and the significance of wampum belts (107 – 108) are meticulously described. The importance of community needs over those of the individual is emphasized (73, 291, 406). The native belief in the orenda is explained: “all have within us a life force . . . [called] the orenda. . . . not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground” (31). Christianity’s belief that “’everything in the world was put here for man’s benefit . . . and that all the animals are born to serve him'” is contrasted with the native belief that “’humans are the only ones in this world that need everything within it. . . . But there is nothing in this world that needs us for its survival. We aren’t the masters of the earth. We’re the servants’” (163).
Despite the cultural differences shown to exist, the novel’s focus is on commonalities. Over and over again, characters emphasize similarities among people. Bird admits that his behaviour is no different than that of the Iroquois (105); Snow Falls admits that Bird and her father are so much alike (134); an Iroquois leader tells Bird, “’We’re not so different . . . And our nations aren’t so different’” (252); Christophe admits that the native torture rituals are not much different than the Spanish Inquisition, the church’s burning of witches, and the Crusades (256); and Bird tells a priest, “’Sometimes our differences aren’t so many’” (407). And is there much difference between a man singing a death chant as he prepares for death and another man singing a hymn as he does so?
The novel is a masterpiece. There are scenes of horrific torture that are difficult to read, but they are Boyden’s way of not ignoring any aspect of the past. He seems determined to want us to face the full truth of our complex history. No one emerges innocent, yet everyone is given dignity. This is a book that all Canadians should read.
(from September 2013)