Joseph Boyden has written an honest and epic historical snapshot of Canada in its infancy. Set in Southern Ontario in the 1600’s, it follows the lives of three characters so rich and deeply portrayed I believe they will each stay with me for a very long time. And because three narrators speak of the same events from different perspectives, it gives the story an unforgettable three dimensional depth. It is impressive how simply and lyrically Boyden captures so many turbulent and important themes in one novel.
Snow Falls, a young Iroquois girl with special gifts, is kidnapped and adopted by Bird, a Huron elder and warrior. He seeks to fill the gap left by the wife and daughter he has lost, but Snow Falls’ fierce independence will test that plan. The third narrator is Christophe, a Jesuit missionary who has dedicated his life to learning and understanding Huron ways so that he can live amongst them and share his faith.
Some of the brutality of war and torture may be disturbing to some, but are handled by Boyden only because he has to in order to be true to the story. He claimed in an interview with Shelagh Rogers of CBC’s The Next Chapter (October 28, 2013 podcast) that these sections were as hard to write as they are to read. But I hope that does not put you off of the novel because you will miss a great deal of beauty as well. I commend Boyden for not shying away from a difficult task and giving us a human story where worlds and world views inevitably collide. The violence in the novel is personal but not gratuitous and if anything, weirdly gentle. Being indigenous to the culture himself, ‘The Orenda’ flows out of Joseph Boyden in a way that brings history alive and makes it jump off the page. An ‘orenda’ is a life force much like a human soul, but inhabits more widely. Animals and trees have an orenda, Lake Ontario has an orenda. As Rogers said in her interview, in this book, Boyden has given history an orenda.
This very week, ‘The Orenda’ is one of the books battling to be dubbed a ‘Great Canadian Novel’ in Canada Reads 2014. Each year Canadian celebrities choose Canadian novels and argue for their choice until one comes out on top. Arbitrary as it may sound (how can one novel be all things to all Canadians), I do commend Canadians for hosting a spirited literary debate in the dead of winter to create some warmth and intrigue! This time I’ve actually read two of the books in the running, the other one being Annabel by Kathleen Winter which was also excellent.
‘The Orenda’ is part of a loose trilogy. It was preceded by Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, but chronologically comes first.