Joseph Boyden is a Giller Prize-winning author — his second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the prize in 2008. His third novel, The Orenda, was long-listed for this year's Giller, but did not make the cut when the shortlist was announced earlier this month. The Shadow Giller Prize Jury made the unusual decision of "calling in" the title and we will be considering it alongside the five books on the official list vying for the prize. This means we may well decide that The Orenda is worthy of the Giller, even if the official jury overlooked it.
I have to admit that out of all the books I've read on the shortlist so far, this is by far my favourite. I loved it on many levels — indeed, I was completely enraptured by it — and almost three weeks after having finished it, the story still lingers in my mind.
But I must post a warning here: this book includes many gruesome and violent scenes. They are not gratuitous, but they are visceral, and some readers may decide this really isn't for them. That, however, would be a great shame, because this is a terrific novel about the "birth" of Canada as a nation and the subsequent struggle between two starkly different belief systems: that of several First Nations tribes and that of the French Jesuits trying to convert them to Catholicism and a western way of life.
Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.
This natural world is brought vividly to life through Boyden's beautiful prose — indeed, every time I opened the pages of this book it was like stepping into another world, so vastly different to my own, but so wonderfully rich and evocative that I would feel a sense of dislocation whenever I closed the book and went about my normal life.
The story revolves around three main characters: Bird, a Huron warrior mourning the loss of his wife and daughters killed by the Iroquois; Snow Falls, an Iroquois child, kidnapped by the Huron and brought up by Bird as his new daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary, determined to convert the savages to Catholicism. Each character takes their turn to tell their story in alternate chapters — and each is written in the first person, present tense, which provides a sense of urgency and immediacy. A fourth character, Gosling, a medicine woman features heavily, but does not narrate her story.
There's no real plot, but that doesn't matter. The reader follows events as they happen in chronological order, so that you get a sense of the passing seasons — the harsh winters, the excitement of spring's arrival, the long lazy summers, and the stockpiling of food and resources in the autumn — and the ways in which each character is changed by circumstances and experiences. Indeed, you see Snow Falls grow from an angry, avenge-seeking child into a kind-hearted young woman, and you witness Christophe's struggle to make sense of a people he initially fails to understand but later comes to respect in his own strange way. You also come to appreciate how the Huron feel threatened by the French, who are beginning to encroach on their territory.
Cycle of violence
The story does much to highlight the way of life of the Huron — their customs, including the way they bury the dead, and their ongoing war with the Iroquois, which involves acts of stomach-churning cruelty — throat slitting and finger amputation, to name but two — as part of a value system very much focused on avengement. This seemingly endless cycle of violence is one of the book's central themes — at what point will these "savages" decide to break the cycle of violence and act in a "civilised" manner? Is it when Snow Falls innocently points out that the Iroquois and the Huron speak the same language and grow the same food "yet we're enemies, bent on destroying one another"? Is it when Bird takes a stand and says enough is enough? Or is it when Christophe and his fellow missionaries succeed in their mission to covert everyone to the same religion?
Perhaps the beauty of the book lies in Boyden's ability to let the characters muddle their way through the moral ambiguities without ever casting his own judgement or glossing over the intricacy of their separate viewpoints. Indeed, the story's emotional impact comes from the reader contrasting what we know now from what happened then. It is this kind of storytelling — asking the reader to consider where today's problems between different cultures originated — that reminded me of Australian writer Kim Scott's award-winning That Dead Man Dance, which explores how aboriginal Australians and the colonial settlers, once close, became so vastly opposed.
While The Orenda does not offer any solutions, the climax of this bumper-sized novel points to the futility of so much conflict, culminating as it does in a full-scale war between the Huron and Jesuits against the Haudenosaunee. This rages for days and does not end well — for anyone.