Joseph Boyden’s third novel, The Orenda, retells a story familiar to Canadians but unknown to most Americans. Set during the first half of the 1600s, the novel chronicles the struggles of the Wendat people (also known as Hurons), the original inhabitants of central Ontario, as they grow entangled with Jesuit missionaries and clash with their ancestral enemies, the Haudenosaunee people (or, as most Americans know them, the Iroquois Confederacy of New York State). The Orenda charts three very different lives. The first is Christophe, a Jesuit priest living among the Wendat in the hopes of transforming them into a nation of Catholics. The second is Bird, a powerful Wendat chief who reluctantly adopts Christophe. And the last is Snow Falls, an Iroquois girl whom Bird takes captive while raiding a Haudenosaunee village, in an attack designed to avenge his family’s recent murder at the hands of Iroquois warriors. All three characters have a chance to narrate the action, finding themselves constantly at odds with one another, each representing a distinct cultural point of view.
There’s a myriad of subplots, but essentially the book follows the contours of history: the Wendat ally with the French newcomers and their nation grows rich through the fur trade. Next they are decimation by a plague of small pox brought by the Jesuit missionaries. And finally the Haudenosaunee assault the weakened Wendat, killing many and dispersing the rest from their homeland. All this might sound like a dusty history lesson, but The Orenda is a highly cinematic novel, filled with events that would thrill even the most casual reader, including chase scenes, epic battles, romance, humor, and cliffhangers. Though the book is elegantly written and clearly has a serious cultural mission—to complicate history by focusing on the Native point of view—it doesn’t skimp on adventure. It satisfies both the heart and the intellect.
There aren’t many novels that tackle the cultural encounter between the Wendat and the Jesuits. The last significant one was William T. Vollmann’s 1992 book Father’s and Crows, the second installment in his epic (and ongoing) series of seven historical novels about the colonization of Native Americans. Vollmann’s approach is expansive, aiming to touch on everything related to the French experience in Canada—Acadia, the Saint Lawrence Valley, and Ontario, as well as lengthy, digressive investigations of the Iroquois Confederacy and the Order of the Jesuits. There’s much to admire in Vollman’s baroque, quasi-visionary novel. But reading it gives you an experience of history that resembles flying around the globe in an airplane. You make a few layovers to inspect the must-see places, but most of it goes by in an expansive, picturesque blur.
Boyden’s book is the opposite. Although The Orenda is also sizable—500 pages—it has a laser-like focus. While Vollmann spends time with a set of characters for a few hundred pages, only to drop them in favor of others, Boyden stays diligently within the circle of his three narrators, following each in extensive and realistic detail, developing their relationships with one another day by day, year by year. We watch Bird come to be the leader of his people. We watch Christophe’s slow successes with the Wendat, earning an ambiguous respect from Bird. And we watch Snow Falls as she grows to adulthood and relinquishes her Haudenosaunee identity when she decides to marry into her adoptive people. By the end, we feel as though these characters are our own family, which makes the destruction of their way of life all the more poignant at the book’s finale. My one small complaint about the structure is that the climactic series of battles goes on a bit long for my taste, beginning to feel a little like the final installment of The Lord of the Rings movies. But this aside, I found it to be impressively built.
It’s the prose style of The Orenda that allows everything to spring to life. Told in an extremely close first-person present tense, the faraway 1600s feel immediate. It’s a style that has become Boyden’s trademark, a method he’s been refining ever since his first novel, Three Day Road. The Orenda marks Boyden’s perfection of the mode. Just as vivid, the prose this time around feels highly controlled, more precise and chiseled. Though there are still Boyden’s flights of voice-driven lyricism, they are always put in service of the story, revealing the authorial control of a fully mature writer.
For the most part, The Orenda is viscerally realistic, but there a few moments when it steps boldly into the supernatural. The most memorable such passages have to do with a stuffed raven that Snow Falls keeps as something between a pet and a trophy. With glittering eyes made from shell, the dead raven comes to life periodically, escorting Snow Falls on visionary flights over the landscape, showing her the world through the eyes of a bird. Events like this are not common in the book, but they punctuate the action in an unforgettable way, even giving rise to the book’s title—“orenda” being an Iroquoian word for the spirit that resides inside all things.
The competition between Christianity and the religion of the Wendat—and the cultural points of view they represent—is one of Boyden’s main interests. Neither is treated condescendingly, and Boyden does a great job of dramatizing the conflict through Father Christophe’s encounter with the Native “sorcerer” Gosling, each of whom aims to save the Wendat from their hardships by working miracles. In this way, Boyden demonstrates that the European understanding of the world was no less “magical” than the Native understanding. Even though Christophe dismisses Gosling’s spiritual knowledge as “magician’s tricks,” he in turn finds himself working a kind of sorcery when he dispels a drought by praying for divine intervention.
Reading The Orenda, I found it impossible not to recall Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, another novel about European missionaries disrupting the fabric of a traditional society: the Igbo people of Nigeria. The Orenda also recalls Achebe’s mission to demonstrate that life before European colonization was not some animal struggle devoid of law, order, or culture. Both books have an anthropological aspect, in which the sophisticated machinery of a traditional society is elucidated in detail. Boyden offers a vivid rendition of the Wendat’s government, diplomacy, and their festivals, especially the grand “Feast of the Dead,” where the deceased are honored. By including these details—both in their glory and in their dysfunction—Boyden follows in Achebe’s footsteps. As Achebe says, he wished to depict Africans “simply as a continent of people—not angels, but not rudimentary souls either.” Boyden does the same for Native Americans.
The most troubling aspect of Native culture that Boyden includes is certainly the brutal ceremonial torture practiced by the people of northeastern North America. After capturing prisoners of war, both the protagonists and the antagonists of The Orenda subject their prey to days of torture designed to inflict as much pain as possible. Boyden shows us the burning of flesh with hot coals. The shattering of bones. The severing of fingers and genitals with razor-like clamshells. After the book’s Canadian release earlier this year, the torture scenes proved to be an issue that gave many readers and critics pause. Some were simply repelled by the gruesomeness. Others worried that these scenes re-entrenched stereotypes of Native people being bloodthirsty savages, images that have been difficult to shake even today, decades after the heyday of culturally insensitive Westerns.
I feel that Boyden had to include these moments in all their horror. Like Achebe, his mission is not to depict colonized people as saints, but to include the good and the bad—everything in full humanity. To skirt difficult issues such as torture would be another form of dehumanization, painting Native culture in a two-dimensional light. And Boyden goes out of his way to note that Europeans are little different in regards to torture. As Father Christophe remarks late in the book, “Why does the Spanish Inquisition do what it does? Why does our own Church burn witches at the stake? Why did our own crusaders punish the Moors so exquisitely?”
Though The Orenda is steeped in the past, it couldn’t have arrived at a more appropriate time. In many ways, the injustices embodied in The Orenda are still being played out today, epitomized particularly by the protests of “Idle No More,” a growing movement among indigenous people and their supporters in Canada. It’s a public protest group akin to Occupy Wall Street, but its goal is to garner support for indigenous sovereignty and respect for the environment. It began as a response to the actions of Canada’s current government, but Idle No More has also begun to manifest in the United States. And so it seems that the conflicts of North America’s colonial history are reasserting themselves.
That the past never truly fades from our minds is suggested in a stylistic choice running throughout The Orenda. Each narrator regularly addresses his or her own deceased “you” during the course of the story. Bird addresses his murdered wife. Snow Falls addresses her father, killed at the hands of Bird. And Christophe addresses Christ himself, aiming to live up to the supreme sacrifice he represents. The Orenda’s fixation with the dead suggests the power that they hold over us long after they are gone. They continue to dictate our actions, years—even centuries—after they have passed. In this way, Boyden reiterates Faulkner’s dictum: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”