Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s third novel is an extraordinary work of art, savage and beautiful. It immerses us in an ancient culture and chronicles a period of catastrophic change, as the advent of Europeans in the mid-17th century upsets the fragile equilibrium among Canada’s indigenous peoples.
“The Orenda” is not a book for the squeamish; two scenes of horrific torture conclude with the perpetrators tearing out and eating their victims’ hearts. Yet Boyden’s profound comprehension of and compassion for all his characters invite us to acknowledge the wholeness of the life force that Native Canadians call “the orenda”: a unity encompassing cruelty and kindness, ignorance and understanding, inevitable sorrow and joy the more precious for the knowledge of “where we all must journey” in the end.
Boyden tells his story through three narrators: the Wendat warrior Bird (presumably an ancestor of the 20th-century protagonists surnamed Bird in Boyden’s previous novels, “Three Day Road”and “Through Black Spruce”); Snow Falls, the Iroquois girl he takes as his daughter after killing her family; and Christophe, one of the Jesuit priests derisively termed “crows” by the natives “for the way they hop around and peck at dead or dying things.” Christophe regards the aboriginals as brutes; Bird and Snow Falls are contemptuous of the priest’s failure to pay proper attention to the natural order around him. Snow Falls may initially hate Bird and plot revenge, but they share a common world view, enunciated by the medicine woman Gosling: “We aren’t the masters of the earth. We’re the servants.”
Over the years, Snow Falls comes to love Bird as a father, and Bird grows to respect Christophe, even as he sees the dangers Christianity poses for his people. The French explorers’ desire to control the fur trade destabilizes indigenous society, and Christophe eventually realizes that “they are using us [the Jesuits] as the tip of the spear for their earthly gains.” Most remarkably and movingly, the priest who initially describes the Wendat as “animals in savagely human form” writes in a final letter to his superiors, “I can’t imagine an earthly paradise grander than this one. . . . I have had the immense privilege of living amongst a people at once craven and prone to the basest of appetites, and more generous and even gentle than any I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.” The clash of civilizations assumes personal dimensions in the growth and change of Boyden’s charismatic, flawed and achingly human protagonists.
The larger narrative has no such a positive outcome. For generations, the Wendat and the Iroquois have lived in manageable enmity. Raiding expeditions were confined to the summer; women and children of defeated villages were either killed or absorbed into the victors’ clan; warriors not slain in battle were tortured to death in communal ceremonies designed both to pay tribute to the losers’ courage and exact vengeance for previous losses.
Bird’s adoption of Snow Falls to replace the daughters and beloved wife killed by her family is part of this cycle of aggression and retribution, but escalates it to a new level. Her father was a revered leader, and the girl is special to the Iroquois. After a meeting of the Wendat village council — which Boyden beautifully renders to convey the meditative, collective nature of their decision-making process — Bird is directed to return her. Christophe plays a key role in a series of misadventures, but Bird’s determination to keep his new daughter is also a factor. “It’s unfair, though, to blame only the crows, yes?” muse the mysterious spirits who occasionally interject themselves into the novel. “It’s our obligation to accept our responsibility in the whole affair.”
Epidemic, drought, crop blight, Western muskets and Catholic missions fatally interact to provoke the novel’s violent climax. Even as Bird mourns, he retains the philosophy of stoic acceptance that gives his people their pride and dignity, indelibly captured in Boyden’s magnificent novel. “For tonight, we have food and we have warmth and we have the company of one another. . . . For the moment, I can see, we aren’t worried about tomorrow. What more could I want right now?”
Smith frequently reviews books for The Washington Post.
By Joseph Boyden
Knopf. 438 pp. $26.95