Review by Geetha Kulkarni
The Orenda is a sweeping epic novel based on Canada’s early history. The history is complicated but Joseph Boyden handles it deftly. The story is based in 1649 in Huronia (present day Central Ontario). Two native tribes, the Haudenosaunee Iroquois and the Hurons were long time enemies. Skirmishes between them went back and forth and was characterized by brutal cruelty towards each other. Meanwhile, the Hurons have forged an alliance with the French. The French, like the other Europeans, are here both for the “riches of the land as well as for the souls of the savages”. A French Jesuit priest, Father Jean de Brebeuf (later canonized as St. Jean de Brebeuf) lived and worked with the Hurons. He learnt their language, became familiar with their culture and spirituality. He left behind detailed descriptions of their lives to help other missionaries. The aim of the Jesuits of course was the conversion of the natives to Christianity. In March of 1649, the Iroquois tribe invaded the Huron villages, decimated their population which had already suffered great loss in a recent epidemic. The Iroquois took Jesuit priests including Jean de Brebeuf prisoner, subjected them to ritual torture and finally killed them. “Orenda” is a story based on this incident. The story revolves around the relentless hostility between the Iroquois and Huron and the simultaneous attempts at conversion by the Jesuits.
To represent the Huron, the Jesuits and the Iroquois, the author chooses one character from each group who alternately tells the story. Bird a Huron warrior and leader, Snow Falls an Iroquois girl captured by the Huron and adopted by Bird as his daughter and Christophe, a Jesuit priest.
The plot is strong and both the French Jesuits and the native Hurons are given equal attention in the novel. The author does not seem to take sides and represents all parties as a mixture of good and bad.
The natives are represented as noble, strong, unbelievably brave and resourceful; they are loving, caring, spiritual people. On the other hand they are capable of unimaginable cruelty. The book has some wonderful native characters, Bird the grand chief, Gosling the magical Anishnaabe medicine woman, the feisty young Snow Falls, the young and brave Carries an Axe. There are detailed descriptions of native ways and ceremonies like the Huron Feast of the Dead, a mass reburial of remains of loved ones after a community moved the location of its village.
Then there are the Jesuits. Father Christophe’s character is based on Father Jean de Brebeuf. Much as the reader objects to the designs of the Jesuits towards converting the natives to Christianity, one has to acknowledge their commitment and sacrifice as they exposed themselves to extreme dangers to accomplish their goal. The difference in the spirituality between the Jesuits and the natives is interesting. The natives believe that all things, trees, grasses, animals, birds and humans have their own Oki/Orenda or life force. When the native kills a deer, he thanks the deer’s Oki for allowing him to live, for allowing him to eat. When he uses a rock for a fire circle, he thanks its Oki for the warmth it will give. The Jesuits teach the natives different. They teach them that only humans have spirit, that man has dominion over the whole earth. They try to convince the natives “that what they know so surely is in fact wrong” upsetting a balance “generations in the making”. Gosling speaks with passion when she says
Your wampum speaks quite the opposite of our beliefs. Your wampum declares that everything in the world was put here for man’s benefit. Your wampum says that man is the master and that all the animals are born to serve him. Our world is different from yours. … there is nothing in this world that needs us for its survival. We aren’t the masters of the earth. We are the servants.
The Jesuits use various methods to accomplish their goal of conversion; they promise salvation and heaven, threaten the natives with the fires of hell that will never stop burning their bodies, use trickery (as with the clock “Captain of the Day”). And yet, at the end of the book the reader feels as much for the Jesuit priest as for the natives.
There is a poignant conversation towards the end of the book. The epidemic has taken many lives and the village has been reduced to half the number. Fox has lost all his family to disease. He and Bird sit talking. Fox suggests killing all the “crows”, the Europeans.
”Let us kill them all so that we can go back to a life before them. If we kill them all, we’ll save ourselves” he suggests. Bird answers “I fear it is too late for that. When we first agreed to mix with them, we didn’t know they were worse than weeds. And now that they are wrapped around us, they’ll never go”.
The book reminds us of the violent birth of Canada, as the newcomers wrested the land from its original inhabitants, pitching tribe against tribe, converting them to ways that were foreign to them and subjugating them into new practices. The Orenda is a very timely book as Canadians hear natives speak at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where natives describe their heartbreak at the loss of their culture, their experiences at the Residential Schools. It is important that we acknowledge the mistakes of the past.
At the beginning of the book the author writes
who to blame for what we now witness, our children cutting their bodies to pieces or strangling themselves …..or gulping your stinking drink until their bodies fail
referring to the tragic circumstances some of the young natives today face. In answer, it seems to me that the author does not lay blame with any one group. One wonders what would have transpired if the native tribes had joined together to fight the European intruder rather than align themselves with the European to fight a traditional native enemy. The natives were far too embroiled in their own hostilities to notice the encroaching of foreigners into their culture. And then of course there is the moral question about colonisation which is not merely political; the coloniser seeks to replace the indigenous culture with his own, thus destroying an age old system without fully understanding it. So, it seems to me that the author is saying we all share the blame for the circumstances of today and therefore need to share in the solution as well.
The narrative is slow in parts. The narrative is also very violent with vivid descriptions of the ceremonial torture of prisoners (caressing) which makes parts of the book difficult to read. It is difficult to quite understand the torture ceremony. On the one hand it is full of brutal cruelty (pulling out of nails, burning etc) and on the other hand the prisoners enjoy what seems like hospitality, feasts, speeches in praise of their bravery etc, only to be followed by more cruelty. This torture is seen as necessary to avenge their own dead and to cure their grief. Is today’s death penalty really any different except that it is cleaner to reduce our own guilt?
Joseph Boyden has faced criticism for portraying the natives as so violent. The criticism is that he might have relied heavily for his research on the travelogues written by the Jesuits who portrayed the natives as very violent in order to justify their own existence.
I highly recommend the book. The book offers a great deal to think and talk about – early Canadian history, colonization and its consequences which are far reaching, the displacement of people, the disappearance of ancient cultures, the clash of civilizations. However, be warned that the book is not always a pleasant read.