Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”

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Since I read “Three Day Road” a few years ago, I’ve come to expect wonderful things from the hand of Joseph Boyden. “The Orenda” is proof that he has produced yet another masterpiece. I read this novel faster than I’ve read any other novel in a very long time. I have this thing where when I pick up a book, I become so completely entranced that I’m deaf to the world around me. Try talking to me while I’m so absorbed and you won’t get a response, I can assure you of that. This describes my experience with “The Orenda” over the few hours it too me to devour these pages.

Set in early Canada (probably not called Canada at that time), the novel centres on the relationship between the French and the native Hurons and their clash with the Iroquois. It is astonishingly beautiful and brutal, not sparing any details of the violent tortures, the religious clashes, the sufferings of harsh Mother Nature, and so on. Boyden paints a vivid picture of the Wendat clan and their differences from the Aanishinaabe and the Haudenosaunee peoples and the stark contrast between the French and those they call “sauvages.”

Told from three perspectives–clan leader Bird, Jesuit priest Christophe, and Haudenosaunee captive Snow Falls– “The Orenda” shares tales of love, magic, religion, exploration, hatred, violence, fear, and wild, unpredictable land. Each perspective takes some adjustment. Boyden’s style of writing for each is quite consistent until you read far enough to distinguish each character’s situation and thought process. His style here is subtle and allows you to get to know each character over time. Personally, I would have liked to see greater differentiation between the narrations of Christophe and the Huron. Bird and Snow Falls are forced to share their thoughts in the English of the book as the general English reader obviously would not understand their language. However, incorporating some of the Huron language into their text would have helped to distinguish them from Christophe’s words.

One thing I noticed was a large number of references to language: the harsh language of the Iroquois in comparison to the language of the Huron, the strange tongue of the French foreigners. This book is about communication in many ways. How do members of the same clan communicate with one another? How do newcomers adapt and learn the various languages? What tongue is dominant, what language are most people communicating in? Problems arise from a lack of understand and a lack of communication? Language is used as a tool of deception. It is a form of trickery and persuasion. It marks difference.

“The Orenda” is a wonderful tale. Boyden is as much the storyteller as his characters. A definite must read and my signed copy is a wonderful addition to my collection.

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