In the remote winter landscape a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of a young Iroquois girl violently re-ignites a deep rift between two tribes. The girl’s captor, Bird, is one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. Years have passed since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In the girl, Snow Falls, he recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter, but as he fights for her heart and allegiance, small battles erupt into bigger wars as both tribes face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.
Traveling with the Huron is Christophe, a charismatic missionary who has found his calling among the tribe and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to this new world, with its natural beauty and riches.
As these three souls dance with each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, their social, political and spiritual worlds collide - and a new nation rises from a world in flux.
It’s hard to even begin writing about The Orenda, which is a powerful history of the Canadian nation. We Caucasian Canadians often forget that our history didn’t begin with the fur traders, the explorers, and the missionaries, that there were long established civilizations in the New World which had their own languages, values, and inter-group relations. Joseph Boyden reminds us of our Eurocentric bias and he is very much the man for the job. He is of Scots, Irish, and Anishinaabe (which you may know as Ojibwa or Algonquin) heritage, educated in a Jesuit school, spending plenty of his childhood in the Georgian Bay area, and still spending time hunting, trapping, and practicing many of the skills which he describes in The Orenda.
Boyden does a masterful job of sharing the praise and the blame equally among the three groups represented in The Orenda, the Jesuits, the Wendat (Huron) and the Haudenosaune (Iroquois). Even Jesuit Père Christophe eventually realizes that the “sauvages” have real, vibrant civilizations, plus great kindness, and he recognizes their basic humanity (which, remember, the Spanish conquistadores did not in South America—they treated the native populations as sub-human). And in the end, Bird, the Wendat leader, recognizes the strength and bravery of the Jesuit priest (who grows into it, to be sure). Boyden can accomplish this because he has a foot in both camps, ancestors on both sides of the divide.
I know that many people have difficulty with the torture depicted in the novel. I look at it as a historical fact—all three of these groups were practicing it, the Wendat and Haudenosaune against each other and the Catholic Church via the Inquisition. And there is still plenty of inhumanity in the world, whether is it through war, annexation of territory, the “rendering” of political prisoners, or beheading videos on the internet.
It would be too easy to set up the Jesuits as the bad guys in a novel like this—and Boyden gives us a much more nuanced view of the situation. The priests do have what they consider to be a higher calling (to convert Indians to Christianity), but they also become aware that they are being used by France to gain territory and hold influence over native populations. None of this would have been possible if the native populations hadn’t wanted the trade goods that were being offered—if they had refused to trade and had only provided resistance, the history of North America could be significantly different. But like all humans, they wanted the new, shiny objects and never imagined that acquiring would involve losing their souls, much like the Third World today is wanting First World technology without realizing that with it comes First World culture. I saw this so clearly when in Bhutan in 2010—the young people were so excited to get connected to the internet, to welcome visitors, to join technological society, but we as outsiders could see that much of what makes their country unique and valuable was very much endangered by exactly those things. And yet, who could deny them their chance to join the 21st century?
I wonder if Boyden will ever re-visit some of the surviving characters in a future novel? I would be very interested in hearing their further adventures if he ever does so. In the meantime, I will certainly be willing to check out his other writing.