Read an excerpt from Joseph Boyden's The Orenda, shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction
This fall on Canada Writes we're celebrating new writing by bringing you excerpts of new work by Canadian authors. This week, Joseph Boyden's The Orenda, shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award.
Orenda is an Iroquois word for a spiritual force, not unlike the soul, that resides in every object in the natural world - people, animals, trees, water. It is an apt title for Boyden’s sprawling new 500-page epic that juxtaposes different belief systems at the dawn of a new country.
Set in the early 17th Century around Lake Huron, The Orenda introduces us to three main characters: Bird, an elder Huron warrior who has been avenging the deaths of his wife and daughter for several years; Snow Falls, a young Iroquois girl with special powers who has been kidnapped by Bird to fulfill the role of daughter; and Christophe, a Jesuit missionary alone in the new world seeking to convert the Huron people to the Catholic faith.
Boyden told CBC how the characters took hold of his imagination.
"It was really kind of fun, because the characters took over. They started getting themselves in trouble, and kind of looking at me and laughing, and saying, yeah, get us out of this one now.”
Each chapter of The Orenda is narrated by one of the three characters, Bird, Snow Falls or Christophe. The result is a riveting and brutal look at faith and family, seen through the eyes of three complex individuals with different views on the natural world and our place in it.
Here is an excerpt from the beginning of The Orenda, where Christophe struggles to keep up with the Huron, while running from the Iroquois and carrying the young woman they have just kidnapped.
by Joseph Boyden
I know that the one called Bird and his warriors can’t be that far ahead. I wish to God that they’d wait. The dogs mustn't be far, either, have gone quiet now that they are closer to their prey, to me. The stiff girl in my arms is brutally awkward to carry, and as I follow the Hurons’ snowshoe trail to a steep embankment, I pause, trying to calculate the best way down. So steep, this drop, that I wonder if Bird hasn't tried to trick his pursuers and taken another route. I look around for other tracks. Nothing. Christ, please help me. The dogs will come soon, they will howl out my presence, and with that noise will come the men who pursue, with their flashing teeth, their red and black and yellow painted faces and hatchets and clam shell knives to cut off the tips of my fingers in preparation for the true torture. I know all about these ones I've never met. They love to caress their enemies with red coals and razor flint so slow that days pass before Jesus comes to take the victim.
The small of my back spasms as I stand looking out at the frozen stream beneath me. I consider dropping the rigid girl and letting her tumble down to the bottom, feel sick to realize I consider this because if she makes it, I, myself, will survive it unscathed, too.
And then I see the tracks below, Bird’s snowshoe tracks, small as pigeon claws, etched along the distant bank and disappearing into thick brush. I lift my charge higher in my arms and step forward to figure the route, feeling steadier now with a small glow of salvation. The toe of my snowshoe catches a bit of branch or rock, something below the white, and I tumble fast, over and over, down the hill, my ribs and left arm hitting rocks at the bottom, where the frozen creek lies.
I stand and feel the shock of snow down my back. The girl is clearly no catatonic. Quick as a hare, she scrambles to her feet and begins to scratch her way up the embankment, its steep incline enough that when she makes it a length no taller than her, she slips back down again. It would be almost comical if not for the glare she shoots back at me, her eyes alight like some animal’s. These ones are animals. I have seen with my own eyes what they will do to an enemy. They are all the same, animals in savagely human form.
I sit in the snow of the creek and fit the snowshoes back onto my feet, tying the hide cords as best I remember the Hurons showing me. I stand, think to say something in parting to the girl who still struggles desperate to climb away, and then think better of it. She will not understand my French anyways, and my head is far too panicked to try and speak the Huron tongue, which the one called Bird claims she understands. I will leave this girl to her people, to my pursuers, and surely this will quell their appetites.
But no more than ten paces along the creek and I realize that to leave without her leaves me without protection. My legs ache so badly and my breath already comes in such short spurts that I know today might be the beginning of my last. The ones behind me are too strong. I turn back and shuffle through the snow to the girl who still frantically tries to climb up and toward her people. She looks to me as my arms reach out, and as I tense for her to scratch at my eyes, she instead goes stiff as if dead and drops to the snow with a thump. I would laugh if I had the energy. I bend and pick her up, struggling now with her scant weight, then turn and drag my heavy and awkward snowshoes along the trail left by Bird.
From: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. Copyright © Joseph Boyden, 2013. Reprinted by permission of Hamish Hamilton Canada, an imprint of Penguin Canada Books Inc.
Joseph Boyden's first novel, Three Day Road, was selected for the Today Show Book Club, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the CBA Libris Fiction Book of the Year Award, the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. His second novel, Through Black Spruce, was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize and named the Canadian Booksellers Association Fiction Book of the Year; it also earned him the CBA’s Author of the Year Award. Boyden divides his time between Northern Ontario and Louisiana.
Photo credit: Norman Wong