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Bookends: An impressive look at a clash of cultures and motives February 18, 2015

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Bookends: An impressive look at a clash of cultures and motivesThe Orenda

By Dan Davidson

September 18, 2014

– 976 words –


The Orenda

By Joseph Boyden

Hamish Hamilton

496 pages



I’m not sure if it’s a good thing when you have to begin a novel by finding a definition of its title. The experience kind of takes you out of the story before you begin, and the fact that most of the definitions caused me to think of “the Force” really didn’t help either.

Summing up several variant definitions, the orenda is the life force that, according to the Hurons and Iroquois, belongs not just to humans but to every last thing in the natural world.

In a sense this definition is also useful, since the novel could be seen as a clash of orendas, personified by the perspectives of the three first person narrators who take us through the years of the story.

We begin with Father Christophe, a Jesuit missionary who we find travelling along with the Huron. The group he is with is in flight from the Iroquois who are pursuing them after a raid on into their territory. The two groups have been battling each other back and forth for some time. At some point in the past an Iroquois raiding party killed the wife and daughter of Bird, the leader of the Huron group, and this recent raid has been in retaliation for that act.

Bird, one of the other narrators of the story, has taken captive a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, who becomes our third viewpoint character. He intends her to be a replacement for the daughter he has lost. Bird is motivated by revenge and a need for restitution. He fiercely misses his wife, with whom he holds long, one-sided conversations whenever he is trying to work his way through a problem.

Snow Falls is just as determined to hold onto her identity and get back to her family at the beginning, but as the years pass she adapts to her situation and comes to have real affection for the foster father who kidnapped her, and who treats her well. It is she who eventually recognizes the irony of the long-standing conflict between the Huron and the Iroquois: “We speak similar tongues and grow the same food and hunt the same game. Yet we’re enemies, bent on destroying one another.”

Father Christophe comes across as a well-intentioned man, one struggling to understand the people he is among and yet blinded by the intensity of his sense of mission. He is joined later by two other missionaries, and we come to understand that he is not a captive, but is with the Huron by choice. One of his fellows suffered capture by the Iroquois and is never entirely right in the head after that. The other is a more practical, less driven, version of Christophe.

The Jesuits are totally focused on the afterlife, in a way that causes them to devalue and misunderstand much of what is going on around them. Their end justifies their means and they use every sort of trickery and emotional coercion to achieve their end, which is the winning of souls for the Great Voice, the name they use for God among the Hurons.

By contrast the natives are more practical in most of their ways, focused on the harvest of the “Three Sisters”, on hunting, and on the trade relationship that they want to have with the French colonists. It seems that competition for this trade with the Europeans is part of what has sparked the war with the Iroquois, though it becomes clear that Bird’s retaliatory raid inaugurated a fresh cycle of warfare, which ends badly for him and his people.

Disease, as discussed in Jared Diamond’s study, Guns, Germs and Steel, weakens both of the native groups in alternating cycles, such that one group tends to be at its weakest when the other has recovered. Bird’s people and the Jesuit’s fortified village are taken by the Iroquois at the end of one cycle of disease and poor harvest.

Boyden provides us with detailed accounts of the tortures inflicted on captives by both sides in the conflict. There is an indication that this is more than just viciousness, that the captives are somehow provided the opportunity to show their courage and character by the way they react to what is happening to them, but it is still pretty grueling stuff to read.

Reactions to this book have been varied. It won the Canada Reads contest last year, which is what prompted me to read it, and was nominated for several other awards. It has been lavishly praised as a game changing account of colonial Canada and dismissed as a “gorgeously written boys’ own adventure”. I don’t happen to think either description is fair. The former seems to me to be prompted by Idle No More guilt and the latter by backlash, particularly from some of the Native reviewers.

I found parts of the book compelling and parts of it annoying. I appreciated it as a look at three individuals trying to find their way through difficult times, trying to cope with rapidly changing circumstances. All three central characters have their good and bad points and mean well in their own terms. As we are all heroes in our own minds this is not an unusual portrayal. Bird cannot understand that his war party raids simply make things worse. Christophe cannot realize that he is undermining a way of that is as valid as his own.

The reader has to be influenced by the certain knowledge of how this clash of cultures will end. One can’t read this book without thinking about things as they are now, and wondering whether this story is an accusation or a justification is bound to raise some interesting debates.