My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Simply put, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is a timeless and imperative read for every Canadian. Even if you’re not Canadian, you should read this novel. It will edify, illuminate, shatter, and complete your understanding of society during 17th century First Nations and European first contact. That The Orenda did not make the short list for either the Giller or the GG is quite incomprehensible. If ever there were a novel, and an author, worthy of our attention, our praise, and our accolades, it is The Orenda and Joseph Boyden.
Quite beyond The Orenda’s importance in the canon of Canadian literature, it is a compelling read. (And for me one near and dear to my heart, given my own short story, And the Angels Sang, which formed the keystone story for my collection by the same name.)
Boyden tells the story of the Iroquoian pogrom against the Wyandot (Huron) peoples, which culminated in the destruction of the Jesuit mission at Ste. Marie among the Hurons in present day Midland, and the legendary torture and execution of St. Jean de Brebeuf.
While Boyden chooses fictional names for the people involved in this historic occurrence, the historical integrity and framework remains.
The story itself is told in first person, present-tense narratives through three voices, that of Snow Falls, an Iroquoian girl orphaned and captured by a Huron warrior; that of Bird, the warrior responsible for Snow Falls’ plight and who subsequently adopts her; and Father Christophe, the Jesuit, or Crow, who comes among the Huron to bring his version of redemption and salvation to the sauvages.
Boyden sculpts these characters with a deft hand, so they are fully realized, living entities with voices so strong they haunt your thoughts. There is no confusion when progressing chapter to chapter who speaks, a feat not easily accomplished unless at the hand of a confident writer.
The pacing is brisk, tense, never flagging, and even if a reader weren’t aware of the history about which Boyden writes, there would be a sense of drums thundering beneath the text, of doom echoing through the forests.
All of these components are fused together with Boyden’s trademark style, employing spare language, each word chosen for precise impact. This is a lean story which is, in contrast, defiantly rich and satiating.
Whether you choose to immerse yourself in The Orenda by way of eBook or print, I assure you these hours you spend reading will be profound and memorable.
Bravo, Joseph. Miigwech.