Archive for the ‘Boyden, Joseph (2)’ Category

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

November 7, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

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.


    Kimbofo reviews The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

    October 29, 2013

    UK cover

    UK cover

    Regular visitors here will be aware that the Shadow Giller Jury, for the first time in its 19 year history, has chosen to call-in a title in addition to the Real Jury shortlist, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. Kimbofo is the first of us to post a review of our call-in novel — here are her opening paragraphs (you can find the full review here):

    Joseph Boyden is a Giller Prize-winning author — his second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the prize in 2008. His third novel, The Orenda, was long-listed for this year’s Giller, but did not make the cut when the shortlist was announced earlier this month. The Shadow Giller Prize Jury made the unusual decision of “calling in” the title and we will be considering it alongside the five books on the official list vying for the prize. This means we may well decide that The Orenda is worthy of the Giller, even if the official jury overlooked it.

    I have to admit that out of all the books I’ve read on the shortlist so far, this is by far my favourite. I loved it on many levels — indeed, I was completely enraptured by it — and almost three weeks after having finished it, the story still lingers in my mind.

    But I must post a warning here: this book includes many gruesome and violent scenes. They are not gratuitous, but they are visceral, and some readers may decide this really isn’t for them. That, however, would be a great shame, because this is a terrific novel about the “birth” of Canada as a nation and the subsequent struggle between two starkly different belief systems: that of several First Nations tribes and that of the French Jesuits trying to convert them to Catholicism and a western way of life.

    Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.

    This natural world is brought vividly to life through Boyden’s beautiful prose — 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.

    The story revolves around three main characters: Bird, a Huron warrior mourning the loss of his wife and daughters killed by the Iroquois; Snow Falls, an Iroquois child, kidnapped by the Huron and brought up by Bird as his new daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary, determined to convert the savages to Catholicism. Each character takes their turn to tell their story in alternate chapters — and each is written in the first person, present tense, which provides a sense of urgency and immediacy. A fourth character, Gosling, a medicine woman features heavily, but does not narrate her story.

    Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden

    April 6, 2009


    Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s premier fiction award.  It was recently released in the United Kingdom, which makes it eligible for this year’s Man Booker Prize.  Since this blog did not exist last fall and I haven’t commented on it, that seemed a good excuse for a reread.  It was my personal second choice for the Giller (in a deadheat with Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa) — the reread only confirms the deadheat.

    boyden-three-dayThe book is the second in a projected trilogy.  The first, Three Day Road, also was critically well-received and won some minor prizes.  I don’t think the two need to be read in order — I didn’t, and I think for many readers reading Through Black Spruce first might be a good idea.  You will see why later in the review.



    The book is told in two first person narratives, alternating by chapter.  One is that of Will Bird, a 55-year-old trapper and bush pilot in Moosonee, Ontario (that’s a native community right at the south end of James Bay, if you aren’t up on your Ontario geography).  The other is his twentysomething niece, Annie, now living (and trapping) from her camp 15 miles outside of Moosonee, just returned from eight months in the South, in search of her younger sister.

    Will is in a coma as the book opens, the result of a spat with the Netmaker family, the local bootleggers who have now moved on to controlling the drug trade.  He begins his narrative by telling us that he has survived three plane crashes — we get the sense immediately that he is used to being near death.  The seeds are also sewn for the hope that he will survive this one too.  As we will discover, the Netmakers and Birds have been feuding for quite a while, perhaps generations.  This latest outrage arises from a belief that Will has been informing on them — but Boyden merely uses that to supply a context which allows Will to explore his past, both distant and recent.  It also allows this half of the narrative to move geographically north at points, into the islands of James Bay.

    Annie is visiting her uncle in hospital — her nursing friend, Eva, tells her that simply talking would be good for him.  So she begins to tell the story of her recent months.  Each of her chapters, however, begins in the present — first at the camp (she has brought a male native friend she found on the streets of Toronto back with her).  Her younger sister, Suzanne, left Moosonee 17 months ago, on a snowmobile headed for Toronto (with a Netmaker, of course).  The family knows that Suzanne found her way into the fashion model world in Toronto, Montreal and Manhattan (fashion magazines even make their way to Moosonee).  A “holiday” one-week trip to Toronto sent Annie off on an eight-month unsuccessful search.

    I will make no attempt to further outline the plot — while it is certainly important to the book, it is not where the real strength lies.  Two other aspects of Boyden’s work are what make this a truly unique novel, as far as this reader is concerned.

    The first is the way that he mixes conventional and aboriginal narrative models to tell his story, just as he uses two narrators.  In the conventional sense, Through Black Spruce, does have a chronology, albeit one that unfolds with considerable use of flashback.  In the oral tradition of the native people, however, that does not happen in a linear fashion.  Instead, in each chapter, both Will and Annie begin in the present, find aspects of the present that set off memories of the past and then develop those memories.  It is the literary version of creating a tapestry or quilt (not that I know much about either of those things, but I think the metaphor applies).  Each piece is carefully and completely developed, throughout most of the overall chronology.  Then it is set aside and work begins on another piece.  Only as the book begins to approach a conclusion does the author begin to stitch together the various pieces to complete the overall picture.  Boyden is masterful in the way he uses this technique.

    The second powerful strength to the book is that in every one of those pieces Boyden explores, in some depth, the conflict between traditional and modern life and the need (and difficulty) that both Will and Annie face in somehow finding a resolution.  They are a generation apart so it has different aspects (he becomes a bush pilot who flies north, she heads south and herself becomes a model) — but the underlying tension for both remains the same.  It is impossible not to be deeply touched by and enrolled in the challenges (and failures) that the two central characters face.

    Boyden is uniquely qualified to develop both those stream.  Part Metis himself, he spends half the year teaching in New Orleans and the other half in Northern Ontario.  So he knows both conventional writing  — and the oral tradition.  And he certainly knows firsthand the conflict between living in the South and trying to observe and profit from ancestral ways.  For a further exploration of this, check dovegreyreader’s review of Boyden’s recent Henry Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta here.  He explored that theme of conflict, and expanded upon it, in that lecture.  (Yes, she is very kind to both me and this blog in that post, but it has some important observations that go beyond this review.  It also has a link to DGR’s review of Through Black Spruce — I can’t help but wonder whether as a quilter she wasn’t influenced at least subconsciously by that aspect of Boyden’s writing.)

    Now, as promised, back to Three Day Road.  It is the story of Elijah and Xavier (who is Will Bird’s father, Annie’s grandfather), two Ojibway from Moosonee who  head off to France to fight in the Great War.  They become a legendary pair of snipers (they lived off hunting back home, after all) before Elijah is killed.  Again, Boyden plays with time — in the present tense in this book, Xavier has returned and his mother is rowing her shell-shocked son down the Moose River to home, which sets off the same tapestry of flashbacks.  Again, Boyden explores the conflict between finding a compromise between traditional and contemporary ways — this time more than half a century earlier.  Both books indicate not much has changed.

    I didn’t read Three Day Road when it first came out in 2005 because, I will admit, I was suffering from Great War reading overload and couldn’t face another volume about a depressing war.  I assure you I picked my copy up very quickly after finishing Through Black Spruce.  If I have adequately conveyed the idea of the way Boyden develops his narratives in the same way an artisan stitches a tapestry, it doesn’t matter which you read first — at least, it didn’t to me.

    Does this book have a shot at the ManBooker longlist, at least?  The Canadian in me would love to think so.  Even if it doesn’t, if you would like to develop an understanding of the challenges that have faced the native people of Canada for the last century and more (and, quite frankly, Australia, New Zealand and the United States as well), I can’t think of a better place to start.

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