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.