The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The Orenda was the Shadow Giller Jury’s unanimous choice as this year’s Prize winner — and we had to call it in since it did not make the Real Jury’s shortlist. So this is obviously going to be a positive review. Having said that, The Orenda is not for everyone — it has a narrative complexity that can be frustrating and there is a continuing thread of graphically-realistic violence that can be testing. I’m hoping this review will show why it is worth readers coping with those challenges — because they are essential to appreciating what is truly an outstanding novel.

Let’s start with an overview of the four global forces that are at play in Boyden’s novel, set in southwestern Ontario (yes, if you are an Alice Munro fan, this is very close to Munro country, only it is three centuries earlier):

  • The narrative takes place in the territory of a Wendat (Huron) settlement, close to the shore of Lake Huron (known as the Sweetwater Sea in the native language). The group are a trading nation — they raise the three sisters (corn, beans and squash), trade them for furs with a native nation from farther north and then trade those furs with the Iron People, the French who have just arrived in North America. Much of that trade is useful items like pots and axes — they also aspire, however, to acquire “the shining wood”, the rifle that is far more deadly than their bow and arrows.
  • Trading with the French involves a high-risk, lengthy, multi-canoe summer convoy through the territory of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nation — the wars between the two have extended for generations and developed their own theatre of capture, killing and torture (known as “caressing” in a particularly brutal simile). There are regular violent sorties between the two (it is a coming-of-age rite for young warriors); fairly often this erupts into a full-scale battle. This has been going on for so long that the memories — which influence the present — have grown into legend that is part of concrete, present-day reality.
  • And then there are the “Crows” — Jesuit missionaries who, while committed to converting heathens to Christianity, are pretty much the advance guard of the invading French. Dependent on their trade with the Iron People, the Huron effectively have no choice but to admit these disruptive influences to their settlements. The “crows” don’t come with weapons in the conventional sense, but they do arrive with even more devastating ones — small pox, influenza and a host of other diseases to which the native people have not built up immunity.
  • And finally there is the most powerful force of all, Mother Nature. Huron history recognizes this — every force or object in nature has an orenda (spirit) that serves to represent its value. To cite just one example, a summer where the orenda does not bring rain means the three sisters yield no crop, a disaster far more damaging than any Iroquois raid — not just in eliminating trade for a year, but also bringing starvation into play. Obviously, the idea that every object has its own spirit stands in conflict with the Jesuit doctrine of One Great Voice.
  • Those four over-arching forces are ever-present in The Orenda but Boyden has chosen to tell his story through three individual narrative voices which represent them. While it takes some time to get used to these three (patience is an often frustrating constant of North America’s aboriginal people — it is a talent, natural or acquired, that is essential for readers of this novel), these voices become the “orenda” of the novel — distinctive, thoughtful, both contemplative and active. Once I came to be comfortable with them, each provided a distinctive dimension to the story, effectively making the printed page a concrete three-dimensional sculpture.

  • Bird is a warrior elder of the Wendat tribe. We meet him on his way home from a hunting excursion (the missionary Christophe is with Bird’s party) after encountering and killing all but one of an Iroquois group they had come across (“…they were close to starving. And by the lack of dog prints I knew what their last meal had been.”). Bird is a much more complete character than the following excerpt illustrates, but I include it here to supply an example of the violence that is crucial to the novel, but may be disturbing for some:

    I took no pleasure yesterday in killing the last two women. They were already so wounded we knew they wouldn’t survive the trip home. Even though I asked Fox [Bird's best friend and essential fighting ally] to do it, my asking is the same as if I myself had done it. Fox cut their throats with his knife so that they’d die quickly, ignoring the taunts of Sturgeon and Hawk and Deer to make it slow. When the three called Fox a woman for making the first leave so fast, he positioned the second woman, who was quite pretty, so the blood from her throat sprayed their faces. That shut them up, and despite feeling badly for these dead, I laughed. For all I knew, it was this group who was responsible for the slow and awful deaths of you, my wife, and you, my two daughters. There’s been no peace since. I no longer care for peace.

    Bird is certainly an effective warrior and trader, but he is much more than that. He is aware that the “crows” are not just individuals his tribe is forced to accept as visitors, they foreshadow a change that is beyond the control of the Wendat. The Iroquois are an enemy that Bird understands — the “crows” are part of a new destructive force which will not go away that is beyond his comprehension.

  • Snow Falls is a young Iroquois, the only survivor of the deadly incident in the above excerpt. One element in the long history of Huron-Iroquois warring is that the taking of hostages to replace family that one has lost has become quite acceptable — Bird is bringing the young girl home as a new daughter to replace the two he has lost:

    Despite her slowing us down all night and as her people pursue us this morning, I still don’t regret taking her. She contains something powerful. This has become more and more clear in the last while. I’m willing to take this great risk because of the promise of what’s inside her. And if the Crow is able to not only keep up with my hunters but also keep the girl alive, he will have proved to me that both of them have something worth studying.

    Snow Falls becomes a wonderfully realized character as the novel proceeds. Sometimes she serves as a representative of her people, an Iroquois hostage in a Huron community. Sometimes she is just an angry girl growing up — such as when she urinates on Bird’s sleeping robe as a gesture of protest. Sometimes she is the young, developing medicine woman who “contains something powerful”. And in all those guises and more, she is a symbol of the next generation that will have to cope with all the conflicting forces that dominate the present day of the novel.

  • And then there is Christophe, the Crow. The portrayal of Jesuit missionaries in Canadian fiction has pretty much been a contrast of two poles — the martyr version of Father Brebeuf (in his acknowledgements Boyden cites several sources that chronicle the Jesuit story) or the personification of secular evil (smallpox-ridden blankets, residential schools, etc.). To Boyden’s credit, Christophe incorporates elements of both those extremes and everything in between — like Snow Falls, he grows into a thoroughly three-dimensional character, sometimes worthy of worship, sometimes an obvious fool, sometimes evil personified. The author signals this ambiguous nature early on, in Christophe’s first narrative portion of the book, an introspective stream of conscience report to his God as he carries Snow Falls back to Huron territory, his task after the battle where her family was killed:

    You seem to be very far away here in this cold hell, and the Superior’s attempts to prepare me before I left France, before my journey to this new world, seem ridiculous in their navïeté. You will face great danger. You will almost certainly face death. You will question Jesus’ mercy, even His existence. This is Lucifer whispering in your ear. Lucifer’s fires are ice. There is no warming your body and soul by them. But Superior doesn’t have any idea what true cold is, I realize, as I allow myself and the girl to be swallowed by the darkness of trees that the bitter sun fails to penetrate.

    Christophe’s faith is under challenge as the book opens and it will only become more so as it continues. And yet, even in this aspect of the novel, Boyden finds a way to inject some humor into what overall is a very, very serious book. Later in the novel, when Christophe has two fellow Jesuits with him, the three are having trouble getting their “converts” to pay attention — until one of them discovers the Huron are captivated by the priests’ chiming clock. In no time, it becomes Captain of the Day — and the Jesuits don’t hesitate to ascribe a prescriptive purpose to the hourly chiming (“Captain of the Day says it is time to pray.” “Captain of the Day says it is time to go home to the longhouse.”)

  • We know from more than three hundred years of history that those four forces I described in the opening of the review have never arrived at final resolution — they continue to exist in a state of tension that ebbs, flows, strengthens and eases to this day. What Boyden has done in this outstanding novel is give us one version of how they might originally have come into play — and he does it through the voices and portrayals of three of the most well-developed characters I can remember finding in a contemporary novel.

    I have hinted at some of the challenges I found in reading this novel. Indeed, for the first two-thirds (it is 490 pages), I could not read more than 50 or 60 pages at a sitting — the story and images were simply too powerful for me to go further without pausing to absorb what I had read. So when I sat down with 200 pages to go, I figured that I had at least three, probably four, days of reading ahead of me — and then finished it all in one go. Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe were all so firmly established in my mind that I moved easily from one to the other — and even the reading of the truly horrific extended battle at the end of the novel could not be interrupted.

    This is already the wordiest review in the history of this blog (yes, I am trying to sell the reading of this novel) and I’m having trouble phrasing an appropriate conclusion — mainly because I’m trying to find my own version of what my fellow Shadow Giller Juror Kimbofo has already captured in her summary of The Orenda when we announced our 2013 winner. So I’ll just borrow her words as a perfect capsule of the impact that The Orenda had on me as well:

    Indeed, every time I opened the pages of this book it was like stepping into another world, so vastly different to my own, but so wonderfully rich and evocative that I would feel a sense of dislocation whenever I closed the book and went about my normal life.”

    I can think of no higher praise for any novel — this is what a truly great book is meant to do.

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    16 Responses to “The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden”

    1. Anna O'Grady (@AnnaOGrady1) Says:

      I am fully and completely sold, great review of what sounds like an amazing book. I remember reading Three Day Road a few years ago and having similar feelings, I think that all his stories are quite complex and emotionally draining, but in a very good kind of way. I really can’t wait to read this one, and I already have it on the way to Down Under.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I agree completely on the idea of Boyden being “quite complex and emotionally draining”. Both those things are very much part of this novel, but dealing with them as a reader also produces its own rewards.

    2. kimbofo Says:

      This is such a wonderful review, Kevin. You really capture some of the Canadian backstory/history that I (shamefully) wasn’t aware of — though it’s not disimiliar to the situation in Australia between white European settlers and the indigenous population. I’m now keen to read Boyden’s back catalogue, which I note is readily available in ebook form. I suspect I may be in for a real treat.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I was born and grew up just east of where this novel is set — we used to have childhood tenting holidays on the shores of Lake Huron and I remember visiting the Martyrs’ Shrine (which is further north in Ontario). So I do know a bit of the history, but as your response to The Orenda indicates that is not a prerequisite for reading the novel. I did suspect that Australians would find some parallels in this book — I can remember when I was reading Carpentaria that there were a lot there for me.

        As I said in a comment on the Shadow Giller Prize post, The Orenda is a bit of a prequel to the first two books of the trilogy in that they both involve the Bird family — although they are located on the shores of Hudson’s Bay by the time of those novels. Given you have read this book, I’d suggest reading them in order (which means starting with Three Day Road — the link goes to a review of both). Knowing a little bit about Australia’s World War I experience (the Brits used us both pretty much as cannon fodder), I think you will find comparisons in that one as well.

    3. Lee Monks Says:

      I’ll have to get a copy, a persuasive review.

      Would you go as far to say, Kevin, that this year’s panel was inept or running to a guiding agenda in excluding both this and The Luminaries? It seems bizarre that all those comprising the Shadow panel would be so effusively unanimous re: The Orenda for it to miss out. Or is Joseph Boyden simply the Canadian Beryl Bainbridge?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Indigo (Canada’s version of Waterstones) had a full-page ad in Saturday’s Globe and Mail that was headlined:

        “Unjustly and inexplicably excluded from the Giller Prize shortlist, we feel that The Orenda is the best Canadian novel published in 2013 – Indigo book team”

        So we obviously were not the only people wondering about the panel.

        My own (conspiracy) hypothesis is that one of the panel (those who know me will have no problem identifying my leading suspect) decided that this year’s prize should be used to make a statement AGAINST the Penguin-Random House merger by finding a winner published by a Canadian house.

        Boyden is published by a Penguin imprint, Catton a Random House one — Lynn Coady is published by House of Anansi, Canada’s leading independent publisher. They are an excellent house (have had 11 shortlisted books in the history of the Prize and had never won, something that surprised me) and hardly needed the help.

        Part of what fuels my conjecturing was looking back at the attitude of the jurors from the broadcast. Whenever we saw Lethem he looked like he couldn’t wait for the first plane back to the United States. Edugyan just seemed like she felt out of place (strange for a previous winner). And grinning away like she was a real little devil was none other than Atwood (whoops — just confirmed my suspect).

        I realize my speculating is normal post-Prize behavior when a personal favorite doesn’t win, but you can see from our voting that we all had very similar impressions of both the Boyden and the Coady.

        • Lee Monks Says:

          Both your and Indigo’s response would back-up a distant and unsubstantiated supposition, then. A shame that such devaluing games are being played. It’s great for the short form and for an indie that such a title has won but under such circumstances it all seems a little shabby. Be interested in particular to hear Lethem’s views: he’s bound to offer a bit of candour on the matter at some point.

    4. leroyhunter Says:

      Bizarrely, I saw a copy of this in hardback yesterday, with the small but distinct legend ‘Winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2013′ on the dust jacket. Plans and reality did not coincide – nobody told the distribution folks, obviously.

      That aside, I’m another who is perauaded by the jury’s view and I will pick this up at some point.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I can make that line out on the UK cover I posted and, while misleading (as cover references to Prizes often are), it is not a mistake. Boyden won the Giller a few years back for Through Black Spruce — if you look at the cover, the publishers would say it applies to him, not the title. And there is a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy…

        I’ll be interested in an Irish take on it when you get to it. Ireland has a history of tribes that have more in common than they do in conflict who insist on killing and maiming each other, much like the Huron and Iroquois. And of course the church is there just to add another dimension.

        • leroyhunter Says:

          That must be it, Kevin. I interpreted it to mean winner of this year’s prize – in fact, there’s no specific year mentioned.

    5. Neal Adolph Says:

      I finished this read this morning. I think it requires a bit more meditation, but I came away from it far less impressed than you. I thought the characters were one-dimensional, the plotline underdeveloped, and the writing under-criticized. I think that this last point is the one that frustrates me most. Ultimately, I felt the book was bloated beyond necessity without a careful enough consideration for the tone or the mood – there were very few moments where his writing voice (which I’m sure comes naturally to him) really suited what was going on.

      I had a similar response to Through Black Spruce, though I was a much less mature reader back then and couldn’t quite figure out why I didn’t fall in love with this book that everybody else thought was great. That one, though, may have more to it (until the last few pages, I would say, which proves to be a serious weakness in this book as well) – more self-criticism as a writer, more impressive characters.

      I will say, though, that his natural writing voice has a warmth to it that is pleasant – similar to that one gets from a wise, old story-teller. Sadly, I find he doesn’t do much with this voice. By the end of reading it I lost a great deal of my faith in his writing. Perhaps, though, his short stories are better reading – reduced space may make for more carefully constructed sentences and word selection.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        While I do not share you opinion, thanks very much for outlining it. I don’t feel that Boyden is an author for everyone’s tastes (actually, I don’t think any author has universal appeal), so I appreciate visitors here having the chance to discover what some readers find wanting.

    6. Bradley Says:

      Just finished yesterday after a long wait at the library.

      The geography was a pleasant distraction for me as I tried to place the setting and the canoe route. Thanks to wikipedia, I can confirm that the book ends on Christian Island (it keeps neither the Huron name Gahoendoe nor the name given by the Jesuits), northwest of Midland and Ste-Marie Among the Hurons.

      It was a tough read at some points, and not just because of the graphic torture. When I started reading it, I thought there were maybe five different narrators until around page 60 (around the time I realized that the Crow was a Jesuit and not from a native group with that name). I started over after a week off found it much better. Language and naming are what I would write my essay on if I studied this book in school—so much of the early confusion comes from Christophe’s novice level with the language, and Bird’s refusal to learn any French. So many things (and people) have different names depending on who is narrating, and you can watch as French slowly takes over—partly why Christian Island is such an appropriate place to end the book.

      I was on the fence initially, and the Shadow Giller win pushed me over. Thank you!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Many thanks for that island reference — I had thought it was in Lake Huron, not Georgian Bay, but could not find a reference point. Your analysis makes much more sense.

        I faced the same issue with finding a reading “rhythm” for the book and had similar struggles with the early chapters. Once I found a personal rhythm it moved much more quickly. I don’t think it is a book for everybody because it does take some reading effort, but when you put that in I do think it delivers exceptional results.

    7. Jim Nuyens Says:

      The Orenda, of course, won the CBC Canada Reads 2014. A very worthy winner indeed for a Canadian epic. It is a very tough read and only recommend it to friends who read a lot of novels.
      The “voices” that Boyden gives to the Hurons, the Iroquois and the Jesuits (the crows) are so well infused into the stories.
      I’m not often interested in “winning novels” for the sake of winning. The true test is if a narrative like Orenda stays with you for many years. And it certainly will.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        You won’t get any argument from the four members of the Shadow Giller Jury — all four of us had The Orenda at the top of our list. And we still can’t figure out why the Real Giller jury left it off their short list.

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