Monday, December 2, 2013

The Orenda

by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden is one of my favourite contemporary authors, and I was pretty excited to dive into The Orenda, his newest novel.  It is set in 17th century Huronia, and is narrated by three people whose lives have become intertwined, despite the way they feel about one another.

Bird is a Wendat (Huron) warrior whose family was taken from him in an assault by a group of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).  While travelling one summer, Bird and his group come across a Haudenosaunee family and slaughter them, taking with them a young girl as a hostage.  Later, Bird chooses to adopt this girl, named Snow Falls, as his own daughter.  Our third narrator is Father Cristophe, a Jesuit priest sent to live among the Wendat to learn their ways and to convert them to Christianity.

The novel is basically a chronicle of how contact with Europeans led to the downfall of the Wendat people.  Christophe means well, but he brings disease into the community, and sows distrust.  Bird frequently wishes to kill him, but as the Wendat become more dependent on the tools, weapons, and favour of the Iron People of Kebec, he has no choice but to protect the priest, and eventually grow to admire him.

Snow Falls cannot harbour her anger towards Bird forever, and over the course of the book we watch her grow into an independent and strong woman.  Bird is the most unchanged person, yet he is the one who most fully has to absorb the brunt of the changes brought to his people as they are devastated by sickness, and subjected to increasingly harsh and large skirmishes with the Haudenosaunee.

Basically, Boyden has written a fictionalized accounting of what happened at Ste. Marie Among the Hurons, a Jesuit mission founded on the shores of Lake Huron.  Christophe is a stand-in for Father Jean de Brebéuf, and meets an incredibly similar fate.  He does a terrific job of recreating the society and values of the Wendat people, bringing their culture back to life, and not bogging down the story too much in exposition.

Having studied this time period, and having read other novels such as Brian Moore's Black Robe and William T. Vollmann's utterly superb Fathers and Crows, much of what was on display here felt familiar and perhaps a little predictable.  When Boyden had his priests pull out the Captain of the Day, a wind-up clock used to mystify and command potential converts, I groaned a little, thinking of the Captain Clock scenes in the film version of Black Robe.  I don't know if this was a common trick, or something that was invented for the film, but I found it a bit repetitive here.

Still, despite all that, this is an incredible study of three people in a time that we don't think of often enough in this country.  Boyden's mastery of their voices, and the inevitable violent ending to this book kept me riveted throughout.  I especially liked the small nod to his other novels, which felt like a bit of a reward for loyal readers.

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