March 19, 2014 by LeVoyageur
Joseph Boyden is a Canadian author whose works include Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce as well as non-fiction works and short stories. Boyden is Metis with Irish, Scottish, and Anishinaabe ancestry. His works to date have focused on First Nations and Metis life.
The orenda is a supernatural force – a powerful energy of the will or spirit possessed by certain individuals through whom it is able to influence the course of human events. In The Orenda this force is generally conceived as both an ominous, encroaching shadow whose presence is animated through human agency and is a source of personal power, a potential for light as well as darkness.
The idea of ‘orenda’ is left largely undefined in the book, but is nonetheless key to understanding its underlying themes. The central characters, Bird (a Huron warrior), Snow Falls (an Iroquois captive girl adopted by Bird), and Christophe (a Jesuit missionary), are all acutely aware of the orenda and their personal power as well as their limitations. And they are also aware of the transformative power of their actions as connected to unseen forces.
Boyden uses the technique of switching narration between the three main characters in short chapters. Each person’s perspective of events as they happen provides a moving narrative, in both the emotional and literal senses. At nearly 500 pages, The Orenda has the potential to be one of those books that you put down half way through and never pick up again.
But I did not find that to be the case. I did take a long time to read it – about three months in fact. The short chapters and three sections facilitated that, but I was also reading during the same time period excerpts from The Jesuit Relations that corresponded to the events of The Orenda.
The Relations, important source material for Boyden’s writing, were reports from 17th century French Jesuit missionaries in North America. The reports contain extensive ethnographic information about the First Nations cultures. In their time, they were sent regularly back to superiors in France where they were edited and published, becoming popular reading among the educated public.
The simultaneous reading of The Orenda and The Jesuit Relations – the fiction of a modern Metis writer alongside the narratives of 17th century Jesuits; the voice of native peoples versus an image of them as construed by their first European guests (visitors? interlopers?); the primacy of knowing history versus the immediacy of reading it as it happened – was a remarkable exercise, effectively displacing The Orenda from the realm of historical fiction, although I am not sure what genre it would then need to be placed in.
The Orenda has met with criticism from an array of people. One reviewer suggests that it is a “colonial scribe and moral alibi” that will make white Canadians feel better about their history. Some point to one-dimensional depictions of the Iroquois for example, and assert that Boyden’s work privileges the Jesuit experience and European perspective and makes to seem inevitable the events of history. While at times I found the tone of the work to be somewhat didactic, I did not find it to privilege any one voice over another.
Some of the criticism seems to center on the lack of detail or attention paid to the non-Huron parties to the history Boyden examines. But this is fundamentally a story about the Huron people, living in Wendake, their historical territory in region of Georgian Bay. It tells their story and attempts to animate their culture. It attempts, perhaps struggles at times, to conceive of how the Huron might have responded to Jesuit missionaries, their thought, and technologies.
This is not a story about the Jesuits, although they are central figures; this is not a story about the Iroquois, although they are central as well; this is not a story of the colonial French, although they are there, as menacing as the Iroquois (if on the periphery.) It is the story of a people and a culture that was decimated. It attempts to conceive of their story with some hope or promise among the horror and tragedy that is the story we know so well today.
The Orenda it is at its strongest when underscoring the nature of cultures transformed and transforming. In a sense it is a narrative of ‘becoming’ and a vision, perhaps, of ‘metisness’ as a fundamental condition of modernity. It is history, but it is here and now.