In The Orenda, three narrators tell us the stories of love and revenge, of struggle and survival, of discovery and loss in the wilderness inhabited by the Huron and Iroquois, and in which the French and the Catholic Church try to gain allies and benefit from the riches of the land.
Bird is a Huron warrior whose family was killed by the Iroquois. He takes revenge by doing some killing of his own and kidnapping a young girl whom he makes his daughter.
This young girl, Snow Falls, has a strong rebellious streak, but eventually integrates into the Huron Village and and a father-daughter relationship does develop between her and Bird.
Father Christophe is a French priest who lives in the Huron Village for a while and does gain an understanding of his hosts. However, his strong Catholic faith provides a distorting lens that prevents full understanding.
As I became more and more familiar with each of these narrators point of view and unique ways of looking into events, I really looked forward to the shifts to see the same event through someone else’s eyes.
I especially like Father Christophe, who is presented as someone with his own mind, intent of fulfilling his mission as a Jesuite priest in North America of course but also a young man with spontaneous thoughts that can be anything but priestly. He enjoys getting in better shape by working along side the Hurons, working in the fields with the women, or canoeing with the men. He never states doubts about his faith but certainly does wonder about what God has in store for him… It’s a good he does not see it coming.
Snow Falls grows up into a perceptive and resourceful young woman and the cocky young she despised as a youth turns out to be courageous and caring companion. In the end, however, faith is not good to them, and their new born daughter is captured by the Iroquois who intend to make them their daughter. A cruel twist of faith perhaps, or justice?
Bird is old, has suffered much, but has also learned a lot from this long life. Yet, surprisingly, he is one of the few that remain at the end of the story, with a faithful female companion and twin infants, a boy and a girl. Life does go on.
Another interesting feature in this story are the religious discussions between the French priests and the Hurons, as they try to understand each others’ beliefs. The priests seem to maintain that the native beliefs are wrong and must be replaced by the Catholic religions, whereas the Hurons try to see how such beliefs could be integrated with their own. Well, it’s not that simple… There are many different ways of trying to reconcile these views, as many as there are believers in this book. It almost looks like conversion is doomed to fail.
So, as much as I had trouble getting into this, I really enjoyed it in the end and I strongly recommend it, both for the interesting view into native lifestyle, politics, and belief systems around the time of the French coureurs des bois and Jesuit priests exploring the wilderness that was North America. Not so wild when you consider that large Huron or Iroquois villages could house thousands and that these where well organized agricultural societies. Quite a lot in the book was reminiscent of some college anthropology classes I took, especially one called archeology of North America.
This book made the Giller Prize long list last year, but not the short list. Joseph Boyden won the Giller Prize in 2008 with Through Black Spruce.
Boyden, Joseph. The Orenda. Penguin, 2013.