The Orenda – Joseph Boyden

The OrendaJoseph 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?

Joseph Boyden & Wab Kinew
Photo © CBC Books

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.

Book’s Description:

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’s Information:

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada (an imprint of Penguin Canada)

Hardcover: 496 pages

Publication Date: 10 September 2013

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-0670064182

Penguin Blogger

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.

Kicking the Sky – Anthony De Sa

I am going to apologize right off the top here: this review might be a bit ramble-y. For that, I am sorry. But reading this novel was quite an emotional experience, as I thought back to the summer of 1977 and the story of Emanuel Jaques. The book is brilliant and my mind took it all in, but I seemed to also have my own experiences, away from the novel – though related and/or triggered by the story. Together, it resulted in me having ALL THE FEELINGS. It happens. But when it happens, it can cause reviews (my reviews, anyway) to go off the rails. I am going to try very hard to make this coherent and helpful for you, so as not to do a disservice to the novel, or Anthony De Sa. (Both deserve your attention!) I fully expect to come back to this review at a later time, to clean it up a bit. For now, though, I did want to capture my thoughts and hope you’ll indulge me here. Okay, enough of the pre-ramble…onto the review:

Anthony de Sa

Photo Credit: Laura Bombier, c/o RHC

Every now and then, if you are lucky, you encounter a book that is unputdownable. I stayed up way too late on Monday night, well past 2am, so I could finish reading Anthony De Sa’s new novel, Kicking the Sky.  I was pretty foggy-headed the next day, and a little cranky (I am usually asleep by 9:30pm, oops!), but my book hangover was well worth it; De Sa’s book is wonderful and I was hooked from the very first page.

Understand, Kicking the Sky is not an easy book to read but, to me, it is a necessary story. The novel is written around the true and tragic fate of one young boy, 12-year-old Emanuel Jaques.  In the summer of 1977, Jaques disappeared in downtown Toronto. Four days after he went missing, his body was found on the rooftop of a body-rub parlour on Yonge Street. Jaques had been violently beaten and raped, his body was discarded in a garbage bag. Jaques and his family were Portuguese immigrants, trying to make a good life in a new city and the boy was just trying to earn money. He was lured with the promise of $35 to help move some photographic equipment. In the press, Jacques was dubbed ‘The Shoeshine Boy’.  This crime shook the entire city, outraged the Portuguese community, and brought the police and gay communities under heavy scrutiny.

In the summer of 1977, I was 10-years-old. My family lived just a little north of the city of Toronto, and just a bit west of Yonge Street. We could easily walk to Yonge and hop on the bus to head downtown, something we often did from the age of 12 or 13 on.  My family always had a newspaper subscription (or two), and watching the nightly news was a regular part of our evenings. In 1977, I learned about, and followed, two news stories that scared me greatly, and that have sat with me as heavy sadness ever since: the disappearance and death of Emanuel Jaques was one of those stories.  Jaques’ death (how and why it happened) was perhaps still a bit abstract to my young mind, but so much was relatable and frightening. I understood a beloved young boy had been violently killed and parents were afraid for their children. I knew the city was in shock, and I grasped the anger and heartbreak within the Portuguese community. I also remember being surprised and confused over the police actions at that time.

Kicking The Sky

Cover Illustration by Todd Stewart

Anthony De Sa gives us a window into this time and place in Kicking the Sky. This is very much a coming of age story. We have a 12-year-old main character, Antonio Rebelo, who has one foot in childhood and one, prematurely, thrown into adulthood. Within the story we behold a loss of innocence, struggles with moral questions and immoral acts, and the beginnings of sexual awareness. Antonio’s story plays out in contrast to Emanuel Jaques’ and makes for an interesting parallel because, as Antonio’s mother worries, it could have just as easily been Antonio instead of Emanuel. Violence abounds in this novel, it’s almost all-encompassing as we witness it: through the story of Emanuel Jaques’ death, from violence of parents, delivered upon their children, spousal abuses, and then, too, we hear about other violent acts, as we learn more about the lives (past and present) of Antonio’s friends and family.

There is a lot going on here, but de Sa is fully in control of his story. For all of the heartbreak and cruelty within, there is also a story brimming with humanity, empathy and sensitivity. Through De Sa’s talents and personal experiences, we are invited into a world we may not otherwise be able to know well at all. I was very interested in many stylistic aspects of the novel, but there were two themes (or motifs?) in particular that stood out for me: I was very taken by the use of perspective in De Sa’s writing. By this, I don’t mean the alternating voices of different characters, I mean actual physical perspectives. De Sa often takes his story up, to an elevation above the action – rooftops,  hydro poles, a raised sleeping loft and ladder, and an uncle’s shoulders are all employed – changing the view and adding an interesting layer to the narrative. The second point of interest was the (sad) use of animals, and the harms inflicted upon them by humans. Yes, this made for upsetting reading at moments, but it serves a purpose and is not gratuitous in its inclusion.

I know this is a novel that is going to sit with me for a long time. I have taken the characters into my heart and find myself thinking about them, wondering if they are okay, hoping for the best. I want De Sa’s book to be discovered by many readers and I highly recommend you seek it out. I hope you will be as amazed by this wonderful book as I have been.

Doubleday Canada has created a moving book trailer, please take a look:

Anthony De Sa’s ‘Kicking the Sky’ – Book Trailer

Perdita by Hilary Scharper – Blog Tour

On April 16, 2013, Simon & Schuster Canada will be launching this wonderful debut novel from Hilary Scharper – Perdita. In support of the launch, I am happy to host Scharper on the first stop of her Blog Tour. Before we get into the interview, I would like to share a bit of background on the novel and some information about Scharper.

From the book’s description:

Perdita by Hilary Scharper “After a love affair that ends in tragedy, Garth Hellyer throws himself into his work for the Longevity Project, interviewing the oldest living people on the planet. But nothing has prepared him for Marged Brice, who claims to be a stunningly youthful 134. Marged says she wants to die, but can’t, held back by the presence of someone she calls Perdita.

Garth, despite his skepticism, is intrigued by Marged’s story, and agrees to read “her” journals of life in the late 1890s. Soon he’s enthralled by Marged’s story of love, loss, and myth in the tempestuous wilderness of the Bruce Peninsula. He enlists the help of his childhood friend Clare to help him make sense of the mystery.

As Garth and Clare unravel the truth of Marged and Perdita, they discover together just what love can mean when it never dies.”

Early reviews have compared this novel to some literary heavyweights: Jane Eyre, Rebecca and Possession, in particular. I am a great fan of these works so was quite excited to read Perdita.

This novel very skilfully weaves together the themes of love and loss while bringing to life the strength, beauty and power of our natural world. Scharper has coined the term “eco-gothic”, an emerging literary form, to describe the style of her writing. In our Q & A session (see below) Scharper happily addressed my questions about this genre.

Hilary Cunningham ScharperHilary Scharper spent her summers as a young girl on the shores of Georgian Bay where she developed a deep love of its natural beauty. Later on, she studied anthropology at Yale University and eventually became interested in peoples’ stories about their relationships with the natural world. An anthropology professor at the University of Toronto, Scharper teaches wilderness and cultural approaches to nature.

Perdita will appeal to many readers and I feel it is a wonderful crossover book – a novel that will be a great treat for both mature YA readers and adult readers alike. The story moves back and forth in time and will hold appeal for those who enjoy historical fiction. As well, Scharper includes some very interesting mythology in her storytelling – I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. While I live in Ontario and have a good familiarity with the Bruce Penninsula, and really enjoyed being able to relate so well to the settings in Perdita, I feel readers who may not know as much about the area will gain a beautiful appreciation for this special place.

You can read the first chapter on Scribd.

So, without further ado, the Q & A session:

Literal Life: Your new novel, Perdita, may be an introduction for many readers to the concept of ‘eco-gothic’ as a literary form. Can you explain what this term means to you?

Hilary Scharper: Through the eco-gothic, I’ve tried to blend my love of the Gothic genre with my love of wild nature. As result, I do not treat nature as merely a backdrop or setting, but rather as an active and indeed central player in the narrative. I also like to think that the eco-gothic recognizes and engages with the fact that “we” are indeed at a moment of great ecological change and transition, and that some of our biggest challenges are in the area of human relationships with nature. Our imaginations are going to be key in this endeavor, and novels such as Perdita pick up on the challenge of getting us to explore those aspects of ourselves that seek out a deep interconnectedness with the natural world.

LL: For you, how do ‘eco-gothic’ and magical realism differ as genres?

HS: The novel has elements of both genres and these feed off one another throughout the story. In some respects, Garth Hellyer as the “modern” historian experiences magical realism, while Marged Brice (and the mystery surrounding her age as well as the figure of Perdita) conjures up the gothic. The wildness of Georgian Bay, however, and the moody unpredictable, natural landscapes of the novel are distinctly gothic—they do not represent an intrusion of magical elements into a convincing reality, but reflect something much more metaphysically complex and (for me) vibrant. The gothic doesn’t just “play” with our sense of reality—it lays claim to it in distinctive and often haunting kind of way. I wrote on this topic recently for The National Post.

LL: I know the Bruce Peninsula region of Ontario holds a special place in your heart and it made for a wonderful setting for Perdita. Are there other settings you can think of that would work well for future eco-gothic novels? (Will you continue writing in this genre?)

HS: I think there are an almost infinite number of settings for the eco-gothic—since it is about a unique connection to nature, not about specific places. The Bruce Peninsula and Georgian Bay are my own eco-gothic settings, but it’s my hope that readers will recognize their own distinctive connections. These may include the light at a particular time of year, the sound of migrating birds, a walk along the waterfront, an early morning fog, or the first smell of snow in the backyard. In my next novel, I take the eco-gothic into Toronto’s “Cabbagetown” and explore how the library of a famous literary father and a mysterious linden tree in the backyard come together in the life of a young woman named Katherine Harris. In this next novel, I explore an urban eco-gothic and the various kinds of wild nature found in cities.

LL: You will be celebrating the launch of Perdita on April 25th at Massey College in Toronto. In honour of your novel, you have said you will be wearing ‘eco-gothic attire’ and have invited others to join you by doing the same. Can you tell me what you will be wearing?

HS: The actual wording on the book launch invitation states that I will be “venturing” eco-gothic attire. I chose “venture” deliberately because I want to share the spirit of adventure underlying this novel. The gothic isn’t primarily about rational thought categories and controlled settings—it’s also about going “off-leash,” so to speak, and having a bit of fun. That being said, I will be wearing a long, hunter green velvet dress—romantic gothic couture designed by Rose Mortem. I asked Rose to combine the sleeves of her “Aislinn gown” with her “Calista Hooded faierie gown.” She did a gorgeous job and lined the hood with black lace. I’m still looking for my shoes…

LL: As well as being a novelist, you work as an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Does this work feed into your creative life and does it make historical fiction a natural fit for you as a writer?

HS: My work as a cultural anthropologist absolutely feeds into my writing—although I find writing fiction much more difficult than academic prose. I think the historical sensibility of the novel comes more from spending the last four decades of my life reading “classic literature.” To capture and convey a different historical time period is very much an act of imagination, but it also comes from steeping oneself in the language and cultural voices of a period. As an anthropologist, I’ve been very attuned to the different manners, customs and sensibilities conveyed in 19th century novels. As a result I’ve tried to situate my historical characters in a “natural” and convincing flow of settings and experiences.

I would like to thank Hilary Scharper for her time, and Loretta Eldridge, at Simon & Schuster Canada, for facilitating this interview.

Edited to add:

Continuing on the Blog Tour, in support of Perdita, Ms. Scharper visits the following blogs to talk a bit more about her debut novel:

April 15th: Historical Novel Review

April 16th: Browsing Bookshelves

Stray Love, by Kyo Maclear

Where do we belong in this world? If we aren’t even certain about our own origins, how can we possibly make our way in this world without a foundation of support and love? Especially “How?” if the person trying to figure this out is an eleven-year-old boy?

In beautiful, poetic prose Kyo Maclear takes on these questions in Stray Love, her second novel. For her young protagonist, Maclear tries to help make sense of a world that is determined to judge, label and put everyone in a tidy, little box. Marcel is neither black nor white. He is someone who is seemingly without parents and just wants to fit in. Finding the answers to these important questions is a lifelong search for him.

From the book’s description:

Born of an adulterous affair in London, England, Marcel is ethnically ambiguous, growing up in the racially charged 1960s with a white surrogate father named Oliver. Abandoned as an infant, Marcel is haunted by vague memories of his bohemian mother, and is desperate to know who his real parents are.

When Oliver is promoted to foreign correspondent, he leaves Marcel in the care of his ill-equipped friends, including the beautiful Pippa. The world is being swept by a wave of liberation—coups, revolutions and the end of colonialism. While Oliver rushes toward the action, Marcel is set adrift in swinging London, a city of magic—and a city where he can never quite fit in. Just when it seems they will never be reunited, Marcel is sent to join Oliver in Vietnam. But by the summer of 1963, the war is escalating, and Oliver is finally overwhelmed by his doomed love for Pippa. When Marcel eventually uncovers the shattering truth about his mother, his entire world is rearranged.

Now, as his fiftieth birthday approaches, Marcel is asked to take care of his friend’s eleven-year-old daughter, Iris. Prodded by her sharp-eyed company, he reflects on his own bittersweet childhood and the experiences that have shaped his present.

Using non-linear prose that moves from Marcel’s present to his tumultuous past, we are treated to a heartfelt examination of identity. The novel is populated by characters of mixed heritage who seem lost in their lives and in their loves. As a boy, Marcel is older than his years. Though loved by a makeshift collection of emotionally damaged caregivers, he is not truly anyone’s first priority. But Marcel is able to compartmentalize, has a talent for drawing and a devoted friend in Kiyomi so is able to escape from his life. At least for brief moments of time.

“Kiyomi had taught me the word. Moggy, she said, was a slang word for “cat”, but it was also a name for mongrels. “I am a moggy”, she said, “because dad is Scottish and mum is Japanese.” According to Kiyomi, moggies were half-ghost. Moggies cannot walk down the street or into a room or watch a movie without looking for themselves. When will I appear? was the question on the lips of most moggies.

I finished this read several weeks ago now and it is still sitting with me. I have delayed posting my review only because I am feeling a huge responsibility to do justice to both the novel and Maclear. But today, I just want to get something published here, to share my love of this wonderful book.

Each year I find a very small number of spectacular works of fiction that, for whatever reasons, seem to fly under the radar. I think Stray Love is such a book. So, do yourself a big favour and get your hands on a copy of this novel. (Even better, visit a local independent bookstore to purchase a copy! The trade paperback edition of Stray Love became available as of March 11th.) As it has with me, I think you will find the beauty and heart in Maclear’s novel. Marcel will take up space in your heart and, I hope, you will discover a new favourite author.

Ru by Kim Thúy

Ru: A NovelRu: A Novel by Kim Thúy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We lost power for over 24 hours, thank to Super Storm Sandy, so I decided to re-read this beautiful book.

Kim Thúy’s novel, Ru was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Award. Released in its original French in 2010, it won the French-language Governor-General’s Award that same year, and has secured foreign rights in 15 countries. (Though according to a rep at Random House Canada, I have been told a U.S. publication date has not been established.) The English translation has been crafted beautifully by Sheila Fischman. While I was reading, I sensed the tenderness and integrity Fischman brought to this project. (But I would now like to read Ru in French!)

Ru is a fictional memoir told in beautiful vignettes that weave us through An Tinh’s escape from Vietnam to her time in a Malaysian refugee camp to her new life in Canada. The novel begins with a note on the meaning of ru. In French, it denotes a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or almost anything else. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby.

The opening that follows, gives us a good idea of what’s in store:

I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of the machine guns.

I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered through the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

I love the form this book takes and feel that the way Thúy tells us this story fully captures how we remember events from the past. Our recollections help form the big picture but it’s the snippets of memory, of moments along the way, that fit together like a puzzle and create the full portrait of a life. Even in its entirety life can be messy but whole, disjointed and connected at the same time. But from the chaos and uncertainty, physical and moral strength and endurance can emerge and sustain us.

Prior to the Giller Awards gala event, Thúy did a quick Q & A session with CBC Books.

I would suggest you take a few minutes to watch this video of Thúy, as she talks about writing Ru and the immigrant experience. Thúy has become my new favourite person. She’s bright, funny and quirky. Around these parts, we call that adorakable!

Read her book; won’t you? It’s one of my most favourite reads of 2012.

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