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A supernatural force in the natural world

The Orenda, Joseph Boyden’s long-anticipated book on the 17th century indigenous peoples of Canada, is a sweeping epic that deals with the birth of a nation—a time when Jesuit missionaries arrived on the shores of Canada. This novel succeeds not in its strength of device but rather, its impact in altering the landscape of understanding of indigenous culture through its accessibility and connection to mainstream audiences.

The Orenda tackles the dynamics of the shifting relationship between the Huron (Wendat) and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) peoples as settlers from Europe began to arrive in droves of missionary and trading groups. Boyden weaves the cultural history of the Huron into the narrative, using the community as an anchor for the novel’s conflicts. Missionaries arrive from Europe to spread Christianity into the lives of the natives—an ideal that is foreign to the native concept of the “orenda,” the life force that, according to the Hurons, belongs to everything that exists in the natural world.

The traders bring with them technology, most notably the musket that topples the balance of power and destroys the symbiosis between different tribes. Both missionaries and traders also carry diseases that wipe out entire longhouses and villages. Arguing that the book deals with the loss of identity is a gross understatement; The Orenda is about the devastation of a culture.

The narrative is revealed through the eyes of three characters: Bird, a war leader in the Huron community; Snow Falls, a fiery young Iroquois girl adopted by Bird; and Christophe, a French missionary who lives among the Huron. It is clear that Boyden attempts to draw a net of similarities around the three characters despite their clashing roles within the conflict; the voices of the protagonists blur between chapters, often leaving the reader struggling to identify the point of view behind the passage. Contrary to expectation, this achieves a rare feat in literature, as the book manages to maintain a gap that separates the known from the expected. The readers are kept off-balance enough that they stumble into a run to devour and make sense of the story.

And yet, despite his success in establishing multivocality,  the depth of Boyden’s characters is superficial at best. We are first introduced to Bird and follow the warrior through his grief at the loss of his family and culture. Snow Falls’ wild and unpredictable nature shines in her battle for identity, while the intentions of Christophe Crow, a name the Huron people refer to the missionary by for his black robe and tendency to swoop in on dying natives, are delivered through his journals of religious reflection. These emotions and desires are portrayed with the subtlety of a blunt club. It feels like Boyden uses his characters grudgingly as a necessary vessel for his story, thus missing the chance to provide nuanced accents to an otherwise spectacular narrative.

Boyden writes The Orenda in a lyrical and rhythmic prose, signature to the style of his highly acclaimed Three Day Road and the Giller Prize-winning Through Black Spruce. The book dazzles in the breathtaking landscape of the beautiful Georgian Bay region, drawing upon the scope of Boyden’s own childhood experiences in visiting his Anishinabe mother’s relatives to create a vivid backdrop that is evident at every turn in the story. Boyden emphasizes native culture by weaving in traces of organic magic to create a subtle layer of the supernatural that hums along throughout the narrative. It is obvious that he has conducted extensive research for this novel, weaving in threads of cultural character that travel with the timeline of the story: the Feast of the Dead, the wampum belts, the importance of the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash), and the role of community. These all come together to paint a clear image of daily life for the indigenous peoples described.

“What’s happened in the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason the future is always just a breath away,” Boyden writes. This is why The Orenda has the power to evoke change. Canada carries the weight of a tumultuous history with the land’s original inhabitants, and this novel brings the origins of that conflict to the forefront of the public mind, behind an accessible narrative and well-known author. Boyden has crafted this masterpiece of Canadian fiction with the intention of not only dilating native history, but underlining the presence of indigenous people.

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