Canada Reads special correspondent Trent McClellan on The Orenda


Last year's champ returns! Trent McClellan will be our guide to the Canada Reads experience. Follow along as he blogs and tweets about the 2014 edition of CBC's battle of the books. His blog posts will appear on the Canada Reads website every week. Follow him on Twitter @Trent McClellan for his complete Canada Reads 2014 coverage.

Good Day Canada Readers! I hope you're well. I'm back in Calgary for a few days before I head out again. The 2014 Canada Reads debates are fast approaching and it is really crunch time now for the panelists. I'm excited to get to Toronto for the debates and then start my own tour March 7th there as well. With this post being close to the anniversary of the Ocean Ranger disaster it is such a vivid reminder of my journey on Canada Reads last year. February was proof that history as a backdrop to the interplay of fictional characters can produce incredible drama and reading.

This week I'm writing about The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. This book really opened my mind and my eyes to the early days of Canadian history. It provided great balance and perspective by presenting the stories of the missionaries and aboriginal peoples that were attempting to coexist. The characters represent the dark reality that was a very hostile and fragile Canada in the early 17th century.

It was admirable that Boyden decided to give a balance to the novel by giving insight into all the players that shaped Canadian history at this time. It would have been quite easy to write a novel that only vilified the Catholic church but Boyden also reveals an aboriginal culture that was less than perfect. The novel is told from three character's perspectives and chapters alternate between them. I needed a few pages to decipher who was who, but once that was sorted out the novel really came to life. I appreciated the back and forth perspectives and it prevented the reader from choosing a side. I felt for Christophe, the Jesuit priest, and his exhausting efforts to bring Christianity to the Huron. Christophe really believed that introducing the tribes to a life with God was better for them. His faith was pure as were his intentions. However, I also felt for Bird, Snow Falls and the other aboriginal characters who were struggling to hold on to the only way of life they knew. Neither side could be blamed for the beliefs they held dear their entire lives in a world that was ever changing.

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Another interesting aspect of the book was its attempt to pull back the curtain on early aboriginal life and expose its beautiful tenderness, incredible ingenuity but also ruthless violence. Early aboriginal culture is often portrayed as an idealistic way of life void of any problems until European interference. However, these tribes had their own struggles and shortcomings and their inability to live peacefully together also provided much bloodshed. The descriptions of torture were difficult to read but necessary to provide an accurate depiction of the time. Violence was a popular solution to conflict in the book while trust and understanding became rarities. The gun may have been introduced to the new world by Europeans but violence had long since been there.

The Orenda continually seemed to keep the reader wondering as to the future of all the main characters. Who would survive this deadly plague? Who could overcome the harsh climate and withstand the blades of their enemies? Although the world of these characters was one of fear and uncertainty, they were forced to rely on those they didn't fully trust to survive. The book always portrays an atmosphere of uneasiness through a rapidly disappearing past and a seemingly morbid future. These greater cultures are reduced to the simple notion of how mankind treats mankind. Are these missionaries to be trusted? Are all the missionaries coming with the best of intentions? Will the Huron protect the missionaries and vice versa? Could these characters trust each other or could they afford not to?

This book described a Canada that had not one villain but a group of cultures colliding and battling for survival. It is applicable to Canada today and our perception of aboriginal peoples and other cultures in this country as well. Are we willing to accept some responsibility for the state of our world or do we simply blame those that are unlike us? Can we do more to understand different belief systems and religions to see all people as wanting the same basic things?

We must know our history to get a sense of our future. Will Wab Kinew be able to ensure that The Orenda is the last book at the table in March? We do know Canadian history will be a popular focus of discussion and The Orenda may just be the slice of history that the panelists view as essential to helping us move forward.

Trent is on tour! Check out his Live Once Comedy Tour in Ottawa, Toronto, Fort McMurray, Lethbridge and Edmonton during the month of March. Tickets are available through

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