Recommended Reading: The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

photo (76)Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda* has elicited torrents of praise and some critiques since it was published in Canada last year. You may file this post in the “torrents of praise” category.

Set in what is now Ontario in the mid-seventeenth century, The Orenda‘s present-tense narration and gorgeous detail lend it a stunning sense of immediacy. We watch events unfold from three characters’ perspectives: Bird, a Wendat (Huron) warrior and elder, still grieving over the murder of his wife and daughter years before The Orenda’s events take place; Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl captured and adopted by Bird after he kills her family; and Christophe, a French Jesuit priest, who, thanks to his facility with language, has been sent to Canada to convert the Wendat to Christianity. Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe (called The Crow by the Wendat because of his dark robes) witness and play parts in the events that eventually lead to the decimation of the Wendat.

Mr. Boyden’s prose is wonderful; his characters are fully rounded and realized, with distinctive voices. In addition to Snow Falls, Bird, and Christophe, we meet the healer Gosling, an Ashinaabe woman who lives with the Wendat and is Bird’s lover; she has premonitions of the disaster that Christophe’s coming will bring, but is unable to forestall disaster. Snow Falls finds herself drawn to Carries an Axe, a boy who so longs to be a man that his behavior verges on cruelty at times. Gabriel and Isaac, two missionaries who join Christophe in the second part of the novel, share Christophe’s missionary zeal, if not his hard-won patience. Gentle Isaac appears sometimes child-like after the trauma of torture by the Haudenosaunee, and Gabriel often seems arrogant in his impatience and condescension toward the Wendat.

The missionaries, soldiers, and colonists have inserted themselves into an already brutal ongoing war between Native peoples, with shattering consequences. Indeed, The Orenda features several scenes of gruesome torture (comparable or more violent than those in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, say), which scholar Hayden King takes issue with in his critique of the novel:

[. . .]The Orenda, where violence and torture is both the exclusive domain of the Indians and endemic in their societies since time immemorial. The inevitable conclusion is that Indians were really just very violent. It’s not a surprising conclusion considering that Boyden seems to rely heavily on travelogues (journals of Jesuits) for his historical information.

This despite the obvious bias stemming from the interest Jesuits had in perpetuating tales of savagery among the Indians – it justified their own existence, after all.

So problematic are these accounts of sadism, they’ve long been excused by critical thinkers, many academics, and Indigenous peoples themselves. The Haudenosaunee have insisted that some of the practices depicted in the book ended hundreds of years earlier.

While I accept Professor King’s assertion that the novel’s depictions of torture may be based on Jesuit travelogues, with all their inherent prejudices, The Orenda is a novel, and no matter how historically accurate the author means it to be, it is still fiction. Furthermore, Christophe himself compares the tortures that the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee inflict on each other with the tortures perpetrated by the Inquisition (p. 227-228 in ARC); violence in the novel is not the sole province of indigenous peoples. I would also argue that the novel clearly depicts Christophe’s and his fellow missionaries’ activities — however well-intentioned — as violent (separating families, frightening people with stories of Hell, etc.), attempting to replace one sophisticated and spiritual worldview with their own. Take this passage, in which Gosling replies to Christophe’s assertion that he does not have enough power to divide a nation:

“Your wampum speaks quite the opposite of our beliefs,” Gosling says, as if she hasn’t heard me.
“What do you mean?”
“Your wampum declares that everything in the world was put here for man’s benefit. Your wampum says that man is the master and that all the animals are born to serve him.”
“Is this not true?” I ask.
She smiles, shaking her head. “Our world is different from yours. The animals of the forest will give themselves to us only if they deem it worthy to do so.”
“So you claim that animals have reason, then? A consciousness?”
“I say that humans are the only ones in this world that need everything within it.” She stops stroking Isaac’s braid. “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.” (p. 146 in ARC)

While Mr. Boyden attempts to avoid creating obvious villains (even the Haudenosaunee, implacable enemies of the Wendat, dangerous and feared, are represented by Snow Falls), and presents Christophe as a man guided by a faith he truly espouses (he truly believes he is saving souls, and acts with great bravery on many occasions in the book), The Orenda is not a novel that excuses colonialism. The menace is obvious from the very beginning, but French intentions toward the Wendat are laid bare — as is Christophe’s complicity — early in the novel, at a dinner given by Champlain that both Bird and Christophe attend. In French, so that Bird and his war-bearers will not understand, Champlain says,

“For the French to crack this great continent and all of its wealth–and I mean the wealth of souls, Fathers–we must crack the Huron Confederacy. They are the ones,  clearly, who control the trade in this savage land. And so we must control them.” His eyes burn into me. “That’s where you come in, dear Fathers. It is your job to bring them to Christ. We will then leave it to Christ to bring them to us.” (ARC p.113)

Despite all its tragedy, The Orenda is also a celebration and an examination of love in all its forms. One of its most beautiful and moving sections is a depiction of the Wendat Feast of the Dead, the mass reburial of loved ones’ remains when the community decided to move to a new village. Even the dead are cherished beyond all reckoning.

“Orenda” means life-force, something like “soul,”  and as an unnamed narrator says, “Orenda can’t be lost, just misplaced. The past and the future are present.” 

The Orenda is a beautiful, tragic novel. I hope you’ll read it.

*I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

12 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

  1. I loved this book, and I love this review! I’m getting all misty-eyed just reading this and being reminded of it. I thought Boyden did a beautiful job with the torture scenes. It was obvious to me that it was not just about torture, but also about pride and dignity, tradition and faith. Their spiritualism is beautiful and makes so much sense. I love the passage you picked out about what Gosling says to Christophe. It makes me sad to think about what happened to it all…

    Side note: This book was the winner of Canada Reads 2014.

  2. The American cover is crazy. I like it. And I’m so glad you liked the book.

    Speaking of things you may like, I watched a documentary the other day called Jodorowsky’s Dune. It’s about an attempt to make a movie of Dune in 1975. It was amazing! Download it if you can. (Off topic, I know.)

  3. I wish the violence in the book didn’t get so much (bad) press. I found it fascinating, actually. Beautiful even, at times, in how the natives treated suffering as a spiritual test.

    Regardless, the more people talk about the violence the less they talk about the rest of the novel. A bit of a shame.

    Thanks for spreading the word south of the border!

  4. I’m guessing my email to the concierge is buried somewhere in the pile of “who is this guy.” I’ve been reading some of your recommendations and reviews (arcs?). I’m very far from being educated in English, grammar, literature, etc. I wish I had been more interested in my younger years. I like to write but I’m sure I wouldn’t be considered all that good at it. I’m a life long meditator and I’ve found myself of late being quite happy with a solitary life. I am post divorce and career; a career and economic disaster related to a marriage with a bi-polar wife. I first came across your writing and life while reading your essay (?), letter (?) regarding your relationship with Eric Van Cleve. I was amazed at what you were able to express. I thought you must be an incredible writer. I have not responded to those kind of feelings for a very long time.

    Mostly, I wanted to tell you I have been reading some of your reviews and have found several novels to add to my list of books I’d like to read. These three books have been added to E.L. Doctorow’s “Andrews Brain A Novel”: Orfeo a Novel by Richard Powers, Off Course a Novel by Michelle Huneven and All the Birds Singing a Novel by Evie Wyld. The last two I’m pretty sure I’m going to love and are first on my list. Thank you.

  5. Nice job on the review!
    I’ve been talking to some Native academics and most of them are siding with King. I agree with you that this is a work of fiction and, as such, Boyden has the right to tell the story in whatever way he chooses, though historical fiction can often create complications due to it being based in a real history but still being fictional. Things like this always remind me of Elif Shafak’s TED talk on the politics of fiction (
    I love Boyden’s other books and am sad because I think my wimpiness about physically violent scenes in books will prevent me from reading this one for awhile. -Tania

    • I hope people will give the book a chance; I certainly came away with it feeling it was strongly anti-colonial, and that the tragedy was the decimation of Native populations, and that the hope the book offered was that at least some aspects of Native culture(s) survive.

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