The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
Not having read Boyden’s first two novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, I can’t discuss how this novel fits in to the overall arc of the narrative. What I can say is that it is a marvelous exposition of the collision of value systems in the first days of this country, embodied in the three main characters.
Bird is a grieving Huron war leader, responsible for several attacks on the Iroqouis tribe that killed his wife and child. Although he realizes that his actions will result in retaliatory attacks, this does not prevent his expression of revenge. His story lets the reader to see inside the value system that allows extreme torture as a means of seeking justice in a world ruled by the power of the Orenda, the life force that rules all beings. While a modern day reader may not agree with the logic that allows this ‘celebration’, the story does give great detail and insight into the heart of the Huron nation. The emotions that emerge in reading what to our eyes is horrific cruelty combined with an odd sense of love for the enemy are shocking in themselves. One cannot avoid a deeper spiritual self examination when immersed in this reality.
One of Bird’s acts of revenge includes taking the lives of an Iroquois family, but sparing their daughter to take her as his own daughter. Snow Falls is her name, and Boyden spares no detail in describing the conflicting emotions she experiences as she gradually adapts to life with her sworn enemies.
And from the European perspective are the Jesuits, first among them being Christophe. From his perspective we learn how these first contacters saw the Huron and Iroquois, and his interactions with other Europeans and Jesuits mirrors the attitudes and prejudices that Aboriginal peoples must cope with today. The Europeans may be educated and have more power, but they are not necessarily more advanced; the Jesuits and traders, similar to residential school staff in the recent past, have their psychopathologies and justifications for abuse, while maintaining good intention.
Their stories, the cruelty on all sides– for me, this was an eye opener in terms of human civilization as a veneer we apply to convince ourselves that we are superior creatures. One apparent value difference between the Huron and the Europeans was that the Huron believed that all beings on earth have Orenda or life force, putting humans on equal terms with all other life. Europeans then believed that only humans had a soul, not the rocks, trees and animals around us, putting us on a higher plane. Reading this story convinced me that we are not above the creatures, and the Orenda might be a better philosophical base from which to begin to accept our human nature.
This story is shocking, revelatory, loaded with cruelty, and very real. I highly recommend it, but be prepared.