Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, reviewed by Sally Wylie

Published by Hamish Hamilton, Canada. Available for sale here.

Many would say that this book is a refreshing retake of 17th century Canadian History, and that the scenes of torture are difficult to read, or that Joseph Boyden is a gifted writer.  They would all be right. But what is important about this book is the Orenda.

If you went to Northern Ontario, stood on the grey granite turned black by rain, smelled the fall leaves, and felt the bark of different trees, you might touch the soul of Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda.  According to natives, the orenda is the spirit/soul of everything.  It is at the heart of the beliefs and way of life of both the Huron (Haudenosaunee) and Iroquois (Wendat). 

The orenda is the inner story of this book and nature is both the backdrop and itself a character.  Nature in its bounty and cruelty define the Huron and the Iroquois.  Both tribes read the waters, listen to the winds and are one with it.  Even though the two tribes are enemies throughout the story, they are part of the same oneness with their land. 

However, when Christophe and the other Jesuits come with their sincere desire to covert the heathen, both the Iroquois and the Huron know their uneasy balance is upset.  Both tribes know they must lure the missionaries with their iron weapons to their side. Both know that each will befriend the crows if they see the advantage, or torture the Jesuits if it pleases them.

The story begins with Bird, a Huron who has killed the family of Snow Falls, a young Iroquois girl. Snow Falls is taken captive, along with Christophe, the Jesuit priest.  The crow, as Christophe is called because of his black cloak and squawking tongue that neither tribe understands, has been and will be tortured. 

Joseph Boyden
Both captives fear their fate with Bird and the Hurons, yet from those opening pages, the three main characters are bound together in a triad of hate, suspicion, redemption and hope.  It is through Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe that we see how their beliefs sustain them, how their hopes rise and fall with snow, drought and constant threat of the Iroquois.

We begin to know Bird and his love for his dead family expressed every day and during their ceremonies which revere the dead.  Snow Falls grows up, hating and loving Bird, seeing him as a father figure; she changes in spite of herself, and finds love with her own family. Christophe eventually inherits two other missionaries:  Isaac and Gabriel.  He begins to see that despite his sufferings, he is establishing Catholicism in the heathen world.

One of my favourite characters is Fox, the steadfast and amusing friend of Bird.  Winter finds their tribe starving.   Bird and Fox find the tracks of a large deer. What ensues is an epic battle between the buck and the two Huron ending its life with bare hands and a knife. 

From these pages we see their life as a brutal reality, requiring daily valour, but Fox affirms with pride the normalcy of their life saying, “the story of how we got it will be a good one to tell”.  Other characters such as Sleeps Long, Carries an Axe, Hot Cinder, and Gosling play secondary roles, but they give understanding to the complexities of the main characters and the Huron way of life.

The orenda/spiritual belief weaves throughout the story.  Christophe, Bird and Snow Falls struggle with their gods or spirits asking why they have been forsaken, denied while they look for ways to appease, make amends and finding meaning.  On one italicized page, Boyden, through Aataentsic, the Huron’s ancient sky woman, says:

...the question she (Aataentsic) begs is the one each of us needs to ask.  How do you keep going when all that you love has been lost? ......For those with grander ambitions, perhaps it’s this:  If success is measured in one way, then how should we measure defeat?”

Her questions are universal. They ask fundamental questions of us all, which is why this multilayered story resonates with readers; it takes them beyond a revision of history or a story of old tortures long gone from the native peoples, but not from this world.

Sally Wylie has recently retired from her career in Early Childhood Education.  In 2012, she co-authored her 4th edition of the text titled Observing Young Children: Transforming early learning through reflective practice with Nelson Publishing.  She has published numerous articles in Canadian Journals on subjects relating to early childhood.  She is happy to finally be writing fiction and be part of a writing circle!

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Algoma, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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