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Joseph Boyden, author of "The Orenda." Photo by Norman Wong

Original sin

Forget your sanitized history. Author Joseph Boyden reminds us that this country was built on violence.

By Julie McGonegal

For a novel that was released mere months ago, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda has already garnered a spectacular measure of attention. Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and a favourite in this year’s CBC Canada Reads contest, the book has generated the kind of excitement and energy most writers can only dream about. The fuss is hardly unmerited. In its epic retelling of Canada’s founding myth, The Orenda seems destined to become a classic.

Digging deep into the historical memory of this land we now call Canada, Boyden radically reinvents the mythic story of our country’s origins. His version bears no resemblance to the sanitized account of Canadian history that still dominates the public school curriculum. Those looking to have patriotic myths reinforced and familiar clichés reaffirmed will be disappointed. Boyden reminds us that cruelty and violence are the very edifice on which this country was built.

The Orenda opens with the kidnapping of a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, only moments after she has witnessed the brutal slaughter of her family. The murders are meted out as retaliation for the suffering of Bird, a prominent Huron leader whose wife and daughters were also killed as part of a long-standing feud between the Iroquois and the Huron. Despite the sanctimonious attitude of Christophe, a French Jesuit priest come to proselytize among the Hurons, the colonizers are no innocents in the conflict; they manipulate the enmity between the two peoples in hopes of realizing their own material gain.

Boyden is brilliant at capturing the sheer strangeness of those early encounters between European and Native peoples, when with their vastly different languages and belief systems, they met and grappled with each other for the first time. By deftly interweaving the narrative voices of Christophe, Bird and Snow Falls, he reimagines the misconceptions and confusion on all sides. The Huron see Christophe in much the same terms as he sees them: slow, damaged and impossibly ignorant. Despite the struggle to find common ground, their world views are ultimately worlds apart.

This impasse finds its most poignant expression in the concept of orenda. In Christophe’s crude translation, orenda is the rough equivalent of the Catholic idea of the soul. But whereas Catholicism preaches that only humans can have a soul, for the Huron — as for many Native cultures — everything from humans to animals, trees and rocks is imbued with a life force.

As he sets about the task of conversion, Christophe strives to overcome the lack of shared cultural metaphors and symbols. In an act of creative ingenuity, he substitutes the Christian image of the lamb for a deer and refers to God as the Great Voice. Yet for all his resourcefulness and determination, the missionary has only meagre success; the chasm between the two cultures makes winning converts an almost impossible feat.

Christophe’s struggles are riveting, but it is the character of Snow Falls who is the spirit of the novel. At the outset, she is a broken adolescent girl — sullen, cunning and vindictive. Gradually, she transforms into a gifted and restored woman. Boyden has always been very good at creating strong female characters. Although his novels take up traditionally masculine themes — militarism, bush flying and hunting — they gain much of their raw power and beauty from prophetic women.

His award-winning debut novel Three Day Road tells the story of two young Ojibwa war heroes during the First World War, but it is the voice of the novel’s traditional medicine woman, Niska, that haunts the reader long after the mesmerizing tale is told. Its follow-up, Through Black Spruce, foregrounds the plight of Will Bird, a legendary Cree bush pilot lying in a coma, yet finds its narrative force in the story of his gifted niece. Snow Falls is the rightful ancestor of these female visionaries. When her fate is jeopardized in the novel’s closing scene of cataclysmic violence, the death of an entire people and way of life seems to hang in the balance.

One reason The Orenda is such an extraordinary novel is that it eloquently chronicles a crucial moment in history when the future of ancient civilizations was at stake. While Native people today no longer face the ravages of disease, war and starvation that threatened to obliterate the Huron, The Orenda is profoundly relevant to our time. In the 21st century, the debilitating symptoms of colonialism — chronic poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction — are widespread in First Nations communities.

In other words, like any historical fiction worth its laurels, The Orenda is a powerfully contemporary novel. It is a novel that makes the past speak, urgently and poetically, to the present. For all its violence, the story imparts a spirit of hope and promise — the spirit of the orenda, the spirit that inspired Idle No More. Amid Boyden’s battlefield of death and destruction are signs of new life and resilience.

When I interviewed Boyden a little over two years ago for a scholarly journal, he talked passionately about his desire to write fiction that opens up a dialogue about First Nations issues in Canada today. This novel achieves that aim, stretching back into the far recesses of history — its human losses and tragedies — to recapture the beauty of the orenda, the life force of Huron people and their world. Boyden encourages a deep respect for the sacred mystery of Aboriginal beliefs. As Snow Falls says in her moment of spiritual awakening, “We are the people birthed from this land. . . . We are this place. This place is us.”

Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.

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