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):
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.
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.
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.
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.