‘The Orenda’: blood and vengeance on Canada’s frontier
Joseph Boyden’s masterful historical novel “The Orenda” is the story of a French Jesuit priest and an Iroquois girl who get caught in a vengeful clash between the Huron and the Iroquois. The Canadian author appears May 19 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Orenda” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, May 19, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
by Joseph Boyden
Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95
At its core, Joseph Boyden’s new novel is profoundly spiritual. “The Orenda” is the Huron native peoples’ word for the soul or life force, which inhabits not only humans but animals, lakes, trees and rocks. Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary priest, finds the animism “both fascinating and appalling.” He considers the Wendat (another name for Huron) “sauvages” who live “on a lower plane” of existence, but the longer he stays with the tribe, the more he comes to admire the Wendat world view.
The setting for the novel is 17th century French Canada, and the Huron and Iroquois tribes are at war, exchanging bloody raids, vengeance for vengeance. The French are allied with the Huron. Both struggle to survive the wrath of the Iroquois, who are powerful, more numerous and impressively organized. Although the native peoples are still in firm control of their lands, there is a tragic undercurrent that only the reader knows: the beginning of European intrusion and hegemony that will eventually lead to the devastation of the tribes through disease and superior weaponry.
As the novel begins, a Huron chief named Bird captures Christophe (also called “Crow,” the native term for Jesuit), and Snow Falls, an adolescent Iroquois girl whose family was killed by Bird and his fellow “war-bearers.” Bird hopes to use Christophe as a bridge to French leaders, and he keeps Snow Falls alive to help replace the loss of his two daughters, who were murdered by the Iroquois.
The story shifts narrators from chapter to chapter, and the differing points of view — Bird, Crow (Christophe) and Snow Falls — allow for a deeper exploration of the vastly contrasting mores of Europeans and native peoples. On the surface, advances in Western civilization with its guns, architecture and written words, seem impressive, but the native cosmology is intricate and perfectly in sync with the natural surroundings.
The Wendat don’t understand the “Great Voice” — Christophe’s term for the Christian God — and they reject his explanations with scorn. “We had the magic, the orenda, before the crows came,” a nameless Wendat narrator says near the book’s end. “We’d never questioned this before their claws first grasped our branches and their beaks first pecked our earth.”
The case of Snow Falls is confounding — particularly the notion that a girl kidnapped from her family, who was killed by her tribe’s sworn enemy, can grow to accept and love her new “father” and his people. Their evolving relationship is part of the miracle of this story as it unfolds.
Gory battles are presented mostly in blunt, straightforward descriptions. The understatement gives the book an epic quality — “The Iliad” with an emotional punch. The violence can be shocking (making Abu Ghraib seem tame by comparison) but also essential to our understanding of the Huron and Iroquois. Ritual torture of enemies is a traditional rite of warfare among native peoples, called — chillingly enough — “caressing.” The novel culminates in a final ferocious battle. Sickness has wiped out half the Wendat village, so this is a fight for survival.
Boyden’s prose has a gorgeous simplicity in service of this transcendent tale. In the aftermath of a calamitous attack, Snow Falls narrates: “Carries an Axe takes me, and the two of us lie back in the grass, drifting off as the spring sun shines down on our faces, dreaming we’re not in this strange village of war but home after a good day of planting.”
Reading “The Orenda” was overwhelming at times, a rare reading experience that stayed with me even when away from the book and long after I finished reading it.
David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”