Joseph Boyden’s newest novel, The Orenda, is epic. And I don’t use this word in the over-inflated urban dictionary, affected manner. No. The Orenda is truly an epic novel. It’s sweeping and has a nearly magical feel about it. The story is set during the very early 17th century, a time when Canada’s native people had been living without interference from outsiders. But European explorations had been making inroads, bringing white populations to the country, and Jesuit missionaries were attempting to reach the indigenous people, to convert them to the Catholic faith. The Orenda deftly presents all of these issues; it is a tough and challenging story that will awe readers.
Boyden has three narrators, and so we gain three diverse perspectives: Christophe is a French Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, a teenaged girl of Haudenosaunee nation (Iroquois) has been kidnapped by the Wendat (a Huron nation); and Bird – a leader of the Wendats who has been grieving the deaths of his wife and children.
The book opens boldly, with a violent act and a difficult journey. And this opening, is emblematic – the book is punctuated by acts of violence. Early on in the story, we are told that ‘the orenda’ represents a life force which is present in everything – and the orenda is not reserved only for humans. But we also learn about tortures visited upon some characters. While utterly brutal, and seemingly counter to the life force, these forms of torture seem revered and are highly honoured. As a counter to the sufferings, we are also shown the power of the orenda in healing ceremonies.
This balance between opposing ideas is integral. Boyden seems to have well-captured each side – and there are always more than two – with such respect and understanding. Horrible things happen in The Orenda – but because something from our past is difficult, readers should not shy away from this novel. It is so evident, through Boyden’s beautiful and nuanced writing, just how important this story is, and how much it needed to be told.
Recently, The Orenda was selected as one of five books competing in Canada Reads 2014. The theme chosen for the 2014 edition of the program is social change: what is the one book that could change Canada?
The Orenda is a very strong contender, and it has excellent representation for the debates. Championing Boyden’s novel is Wab Kinew. Kinew is an amazing guy – he’s a musician, broadcaster and educator, and has hosted programming on the CBC. In 2012, the University of Winnipeg named Kinew its first director of indigenous inclusion. At the launch event for Canada Reads, Kinew spoke so eloquently and passionately about reconciliation and hope, not only for First Nations’ people – but for all Canadians.
Reconciliation is an important theme in The Orenda and this novel seems well-poised to spark important conversations (even while it is showing us and teaching us things that are nearly irreconcilable). With hope, true change, healing and acceptance can result from reading this one novel. We need to learn from our past and we need to do better – individually, as human beings and collectively, as a nation. Joseph Boyden and Wab Kinew can help get us there, if we open our hearts and minds, listen and learn.
A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees that the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the troubled road ahead. Bird’s people have battled the Iroquois for as long as he can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.
Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling among the Huron, and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to the new world.
As these three souls dance with each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars and a nation emerges from worlds in flux.
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada (an imprint of Penguin Canada)
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publication Date: 10 September 2013
I am happy to be participating in Penguin Canada’s Daily December Delights holiday campaign. As a participant in this special month-long event, I had the chance to read the most amazing novel. And I am very happy to recommend The Orenda to you today. It truly is a novel everyone should read.