The Orenda by Joseph Boyden was not exactly an easy holiday read. Over the break, I usually opt for a less politically intricate story, one that I can power through in a few days. But I don’t by any means regret reading The Orenda. One of my favourite things about reading good Canadian literature is being able to identify with some of the book’s settings; anyone who has been to St. Marie Among the Hurons is going to know exactly what Boyden is talking about.
The story is told in three voices from three perspectives, alternating every chapter or so. The characters are all undoubtedly different people: Bird, chief of a Wendat tribe, fraught with both worries and joie-de-vivre, taking the best care he can of his people; the young girl Snow Falls, kidnapped by Bird from her Iroquois family and trying to fit in with the Wendat; and Christophe, a francophone Jesuit who has come to the New World to convert the Aboriginals.
What I love about each of these characters is their commitment to their beliefs, whatever they may be. Bird and Snow Falls both know whom their enemy is, and Christophe is sure that anyone who does not believe in his God is going to Hell. Each is prepared to make huge sacrifices for what they believe is the truth, which I found fulfilling because when I asked myself what I would do in their place, I came up with the same answers as they did.
The topic of the imposition of Eurocentric culture on Native Americans is undeniably delicate, especially when it’s in the hands of a non-Native American writer. The last time I came up against this, I was reading The Ecstasy of Rita Joe for a drama class and I thought it was odd that a white writer had taken it upon himself to tell a story that most definitely was not his own. And yet here Boyden completely dedicates himself to the voice through which he speaks and I found myself so lost in the world he had created that I didn’t even think about who had written this novel or what his background happened to be.
Stereotypically, Canadian literature focuses on the environment in which the story takes place. Stereotypically, this is boring. I found that in The Orenda, however, the environment was essential to the story. It’s just not the same unless Bird and his right-hand man, Fox, are hunting deer while up to their thighs in snow. This is a story that takes place before “town” was a word that had a use in North America, when getting lost in the woods could mean meeting an early death.
My only critique of The Orenda comes from a somewhat selfish lack of identification. I like to be able to latch onto a character in a novel, and it was hard for me to do that. I felt split: I am the most knowledgeable about Christophe’s point of view, but Snow Falls is the woman in this story, so in a way I was also drawn to her. But then Bird was my favourite, though I can’t really relate to the feelings of deep-seated vengeance that Bird had.
Speaking of vengeance, The Orenda is not a book for the faint-hearted or soft-stomached. Usually, I’m pretty tough when it comes to gory scenes in books, but Boyden’s novel takes gruesome to a whole new level. The torture of prisoners of war is fondly called “caressing”, and is a fate that is the expected conclusion on any raid. “Caressing” is incredibly creative, involving bouts of bone-breaking, hot coals, and boiling water, to name a few. To make matters worse, the prisoners’ lives are prolonged by rest periods, food, sleep, and people tending the wounds. I even let out a few exclamations of “eww”, much to the amusement of my family.
The word “orenda” translates roughly to “spirit” or “soul”, which I think is a highly appropriate title. Not only does the orenda come up several times throughout the novel as something absolutely essential to Bird and Snow Falls but misunderstood by Christophe, it is also a feeling, an energy that permeates the novel.