This is a very good book. I’m not sure, however, whether it achieves the level of greatness attributed to it by some of its critics. My copy’s paperback cover includes as an integral part of the cover, not as additional stick on, certificates reminding me that The Orenda was the choice of the 2014 CBC Canada Reads, that it was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards.
Impressive indeed. I can’t help but think however that if the work were not set in a landscape that would one day be defined as Canada, its story of mutual culture shock would not have gained quite so much accolade. As I said to the amusement/irritation (?) of my reading group, if this story were set in a galaxy far, far away, among intergalactic travellers of different species, it would still at heart be the same story about people at first misunderstanding and bewildering each other but ultimately coming to respect even if they don’t completely understand each other. Elegiac in mood, this novel is about endurance, respect, and honour, but even more about loyalty to one’s people, to one’s gods, and to one’s sense of moral order.
The Orenda is set towards the last days of Champlain’s missions to New France and the Jesuit missionary expansion into the territory of the Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). The Huron and Iroquois are in conflict, and their encounters often result in torture and death. Through the first person narratives of Christophe, a Jesuit; Bird, a Huron; and Snow Fall, a Haudenosaunee captive seized as a child and adopted into the Wendat group, we see the events that lead to the end of what is sometimes referred to as Huronia, and ultimately to the establishment of colonies that become the dominion of Canada.
I found myself at times trying to fix exactly where the events are taking place. While the Huron navigate a land they know and for the most part understand, the reader, as were the Jesuits and the laity who followed them, is in terra incognita, lost in uncharted terrain. In fact, much of the power of the novel comes from the reader’s sense of being outside her own place, outside what she understands as the cultural and historical narrative. Nevertheless, I would have appreciated something at the end of the novel along with the acknowledgements: an up to date map, perhaps, in addition to the facsimile 17th century map in the end papers of the cover, and possibly even a timeline of Champlain’s and the Jesuits’ missions.
Despite not knowing exactly where in terms of a contemporary definition of place the novel is set, the reader is drawn into a vicarious experience of the land. Boyden’s descriptions of landscape and climate, because they are presented as the personal experience of his narrators, are highly evocative of the terrain and the weather. One feels the bitter cold of the winters, the hunger when the three sisters of corn, beans, and squash fail. Each narrator evokes sympathy from the reader.
For me, this was the most interesting aspect of the novel. Without the controlling voice of an omniscient narrator, the reader is given an opportunity to see things from differing perspectives. Boyden gives equal time and equal sympathy to each of his three narrators. One has no sense that he is trying to push the reader towards a particular point of view. The three narrators share an equality of loss, and we realise their anguish. What is also made clear is that they all share in that more than human quality, that quality in all things animate or apparently inanimate that makes things what they are and is the force that fills the world: “orenda [that] can’t be lost, just misplaced. The past and the future are present” (487).
At the beginning of this post, I commented on how much acclaim The Orenda has received and commented that I felt it to be “a very good book.” I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but I did appreciate it. My appreciation lies, I think, in the fact that at the end of the novel I felt it to be a good book in the sense not so much because of its literariness or writerliness but because of its moral value. I think that if asked to sum up my conclusions about The Orenda, I would say it is despite the horrors it describes a very compassionate novel.