Local review of Joseph Boyden's The Orenda

Boyden's novel is a finalist in Canada Reads 2014.

Joseph Boyden has been honoured with a multitude of literary awards. His debut novel, Three Day Road, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the CBA Libris Fiction Book of the Year, and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award. Boyden’s accolades continued when he won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Through Black Spruce, the stunning sequel to Three Day Road.

Unflaggingly, his latest work, The Orenda, is garnering widespread commendations, including being long-listed for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize and short-listed for the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Awards. While The Orenda is not a formal part of Boyden’s acclaimed trilogy, it most definitely takes an honoured place along the inspired continuum of his work.

The Orenda is not a novel to comfort or assuage readers; indeed, it could make you writhe with discomfort.- Rachel Carlson

Like Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, The Orenda explores the clash of First Nations with European or Eurocentric cultures. Reaching back through generations, The Orenda resurrects the opening moments of colonial contact.

Three narrators shape our experience of resistance and containment in the Canadian colonial context. Bird is a masterful political and military leader of the Wendat nation (what the French termed the Huron). Broken by personal tragedy, Bird seeks the solace of both revenge and replacement for the family he lost to the deep and abiding conflict with his neighbours and rivals, the Iroquois. Snow Falls is the mysterious and powerful young woman adopted by Bird following the murder of her family. Finally, Pere Christophe is the deeply naïve Jesuit priest who enters the Wendat community in the hopes of sacrificing himself for the salvation of the sauvages and himself.

What ensues is an epic tale of the human ambivalence that allows for the simultaneous eruption of love and hate, cruelty and compassion, and tenderness and brutality. The Orenda is an instant classic that unsettles our sense of historical certitude and, in turn, challenges our contemporary worldview.

The Orenda is not a novel to comfort or assuage readers; indeed, it could make you writhe with discomfort. As readers we have the unsettling honour of being addressed by each narrator as an unseen entity of tremendous emotional value.  Bird speaks to the wraith of his murdered wife, while Snow Falls speaks to her slain father and Pere Christophe to his tortured Christ.

Unflinching honesty is thus the main through-line of the narration, making us privy to the thoughts and emotions of these deeply ambivalent characters. Snow Falls craves love and warmth, but is consumed by rage and revenge fantasies. Both Bird and Pere Christophe are the objects of her affection and her reprisal. Bird is at once profoundly tender in his love for his family and his people, yet unflinchingly cruel to his enemies. Finally, Pere Christophe, with compassion in his heart, accepts the full range of tacit and direct brutalities he has wrought. Flawed and inconsistent, Boyden’s characters embody a common humanity that terminates all colonial notions of absolute condemnation or exculpation.

These complex characters also influence our perception of Canadian colonial history and culture. Boyden dispenses with the myths of both the noble and the blood thirsty savage. The Wendat characters are not innocent children of nature, but rather members of a culturally and technologically complex society that has developed with intelligence and innovation.

Read more of this review by Rachel Carlson here. It was excerpted courtesy of The Winnipeg Review. The Orenda by Joseph Boyden is a finalist in Canada Reads 2014.


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