I wanted to do a little more for the CBR Canada Day reads, but it just didn’t happen. So here, I thought why not cross off a CBR10 bingo square of reading a novel from my home country, but double down and make it related to the history of Canada as well: a historical fiction, but indeed related to missionary communities and tribal warfare in the early 17th century.
The great thing about our local library is that all books by Canadian authors will have a little maple leaf sticker on them so they are easy to identify. What I didn’t realize with this author, Joseph Boyden, however is that there has been some controversy and confusion as to his First Nations heritage and whether or not this is actually accurate (though he was adopted as a sibling in 2017 to an Ojibway filmmaker named Lisa Meeches). Given his focus on First Nations subject matter (The Orenda being no different), and the winning of certain awards in this area, this raises the subject of the speaking-over of the oppressed on issues that more directly affect them. Is that what is happening in this case? It is still unclear to me as to what the actual outcome or consensus became of the questions surrounding Boyden’s identity. So maybe I should just stay out of those muddy waters that I don’t fully understand at the moment, and just look at this book on its own, as it really comes across as a well-researched and mostly respectful look at a historical period of time (this does, however, include the early colonization of Canada’s lands which obviously is political in its very nature and is related to the continued oppression and lives experienced by First Nations people today).
But as I said, I really don’t know that I can truly speak on any of this, but felt it would be a disservice not to mention it, as issues of indigenous identity are still very present within our country. So rather than get into it myself, if you would like to hear more on the subject of Boyden, a detailed article on the subject of his identity and why the discussion is important can be found here. One quote of note though from the article before I move on, though, from Terese Marie Mailhot:
The trouble Boyden brought to our communities is good trouble. It asks us to look within ourselves and define what being Native is. […] Some of our elders passed onto the next world in silence, because residential school hurt them beyond language, beyond articulation. They were told not to speak. So, today, when we speak so loudly and articulately about the issues of Native identity, abuse, exploitation, colonization and wrongdoing, sometimes it’s ill received, discouraged, even. I say, let’s keep talking.
On to the actual book:
The Orenda is set during the early 17th century in Canada, during a time when French and English settlers and beginning to live in certain areas of the nation, as well as send Christian missionaries out to try and both learn about the lives of the people here to send information back, but mostly to created beneficial trade arrangements and convert the people to their Christian following. While these missionary aspects and characters play a major role in this novel, the main focus is on the conflict between two major tribes of the land, based on years of killing and bad-blood between the Hurons and Iroquois. The story is told from the point of view of 3 major characters; a Huron warrior and leader named Bird, a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls, and a French missionary named Christophe. Bird and his community have been embroiled in a long war against a particular Iroquois tribe, as they were responsible for the death of his wife and daughters. Upon a brutal attack on some members of this tribe, Snow Falls is left alive and Bird takes her in as his daughter, leading to more anger and retaliation between the two communities. Meanwhile, Christophe is trying to gain some footing in the Huron community, as well as lead more French missionaries there in order to learn about the ways of life, but mostly to convert others to their religion. He is not very successful at this, but we see his efforts over the years, just as we see Bird and Snow Falls try to come to understand one another, as well as Snow Falls in particular finding her place in this new community (not unlike Christophe in a way). All three protagonists’ stories are inherently linked over the years as the community grows, changes, experiences triumph and setback.
The novel is very effective in how it develops a rich sense of the way of life in these centuries past, as well as weaving in the implications and consequences of early colonization from Europe. It almost feels like you have been dropped right into a community with its rules and customs and ways, but I never felt lost along the way, as everything is detailed but also purposeful in its inclusion. In this way, it is clear that Boyden did a lot of research and has a knack for creating a great sense of environment. I also found the three protagonists to be engaging and to weave their way through questions of morality and life in mostly effective ways. More than anything, theirs are stories about how humans can find strength, and what they are able to go through if their instinct for survival is great enough. The only trouble with having three distinct characters as points of view is that whose eyes we were seeing things from was not indicated at the beginning of new chapters. While after a few lines it is usually easy to pick up on who is now talking, at first this did trouble me and I got a bit confused until I could distinctly identify each of their voices and position in the story.
I found the character of Snow Falls to have the most potential, and in some ways near the beginning she is the most effective conduit for the story. However, later on I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a lack of knowing what to do with her, based on how her story resolved given how it began. Perhaps I was just a little bit tired of three separate occasions of rape or attempted rape being used in passing within her story, in ways that never really provoked her own character growth (just someone else at one point). And yes, there was also another character who endures something like this as well which does indeed have great influence on their own story, and this world presented is a violent one in that, but I felt like while sometimes this violence was necessary in understanding the world and mood of the story, there were also parts that were gratuitous, and maybe feeding into this idea of the violent past which is so much darker than our present that I’ve heard a few people talk about: how we really aren’t so bad now despite our guns because of what people such as the indigenous tribes did to one another in the past, and that’s uh… well, a hot take if I ever heard one, rooted in an idea of superiority of ways of life (the missionaries call the indigenous peoples “sauvages” in the novel, and how is a thought like that any different?). But I digress….
This book is rich in its history and the story surrounding this, but it was also clearly a bit of a daunting undertaking: the story takes place over many years, and you can tell by the how the pacing really slogs along at times. Now, it didn’t help that I was mostly reading this while during a very slow-crawling and tiring weekend at work, but still, everything basically explodes within the last 80 pages or so, and after such a slow burn it’s a bit jarring.
Overall, however, The Orenda is not a bad read, and definitely interesting in how this centuries-old life is portrayed, as well as the inherent critiques of colonialism and impact that the early missionaries and settlers had on this land and the lives of the people already there (if not at that very moment, they definitely planted the seeds for it). I would just say brace yourself for some violence, and for a bit of a slow pacing over almost 500 pages that I didn’t necessarily expect myself.
CBR10 Bingo Square: Home, Something, Home