Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden's The Orenda is set during the time of enormous upheaval for the Wendat indigenous people (called Huron by the French). Trading contact with Europeans -- and the subsequent disease epidemics, the arrival of Jesuits in their midst, escalating hostilities with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations, and agricultural setbacks: all of these things are the devastating stuff of The Orenda. It's a brutal book.

Boyden lets readers know the date by including Samuel de Champlain as a minor character and later mentioning his death. (Champlain died in 1635; I looked it up.) I have personal context, because my maternal ancestors arrived in New France in 1666 (le Sieur, now Desaulniers) and 1669 (Charron). Also, a Huron woman is listed in my family tree.

The story is told in three alternating voices: Bird, a respected Wendat warrior; Snow Falls, the Haudenosaunee girl that Bird adopts after he has killed her parents and brothers; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary. These characters and the other people they interact with are vividly real.

Bird's conversations are in his head, addressed to his dead wife. I found it best not to look too closely at this conceit, because it didn't always ring true. "Both in these fields and the new ones a day's walk from here, we plant the three sisters. The corn, if rains come, will be waist high when I leave in the summer, the beans showing off their lush leaves, and the squash blossoms blooming the colour of the setting sun."

In an example of synchronicity between books that I experience so often, I encountered the following passage in Eating on the Wild Side (Jo Robinson) when I set down The Orenda (to take a break from its violence):

"A number of North American tribes planted corn, beans, and squash in a single mound, a technique we now refer to as companion planting. The Wyandot people, renamed Hurons by the French, were masters of this art."

Christophe keeps a journal addressed to his Father Superior: "In matters of the spirit, these sauvages believe that we all have within us a life force that is similar, if you will, to our own Catholic belief in the soul. They call this life force the orenda. That is the fascinating part. What appals me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground. In fact, every last thing in their world contains its own spirit."

Boyden's book is infused with spirit. It is the kind of historical fiction that puts you right there in the middle of everything and then haunts you after the covers are closed.

Readalike: Fools Crow (James Welch); Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel).

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