Book Review: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

There are so many reasons I wanted to like The Orenda. It was released last September to great acclaim. I enjoyed Joseph Boyden’s recounting of where and how he wrote the first 20+ pages; his passion and excitement is quite infectious. My own relationship with nature means I’m receptive to the idea of the orenda – the life force that belongs to everything in the natural world, not just to humans. I generally enjoy historical fiction.

But no matter how hard I tried, I never really warmed to the story, which follows the lives of Snow Falls (a Haudenosaunee girl), Bird (a Wendat chief) and Christophe (a Jesuit missionary) and the complex relationships between them over the course of many years beginning in 1630.

After much thought, I’ve identified two things that really took away from my enjoyment of The Orenda:

  • First, somehow the fact that the first-person narration rotated between the three main characters made it hard for me to really connect with any one of them. I’ve read other books where I’ve found this structure has added to the story, but in this instance, the fact that Snow Falls, Bird and Christophe are almost always thinking and acting against each other made it hard for me to do anything but dislike them all.
  • Secondly, I found the writing to be strongest during the battle scenes, when the characters planned raiding parties and when they plotted revenge. There is plenty of conflict in The Orenda – Wendat (Huron) vs. Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), French vs. English, Christianity vs. the orenda, Snow Falls vs. Bird – and it’s around these conflicts that I found the language, tempo and rhythm to be most compelling. But I felt that the less gruesome intervals, mainly relating to the organization and structure of the Wendat society, were not as strong. I learned quite a bit about Wendat customs related to the death of a loved one and the every-three-year move of the entire settlement to a new location. But wish I’d gained a better understanding of the role of the Three Sisters and settlement politics.

Personal feelings aside, I believe The Orenda is an important book, for a several reasons:

  • It describes the relationship between the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee before the arrival of the French, English and Jesuits.
  • It paints a pretty clear picture of how European politics fueled the fire of First Nations’ politics.
  • I gained a better understanding of the role the Jesuits played in the European settlement of Quebec and Ontario and in the pushing aside of belief in the orenda in favour of Christianity.
  • Most of the Canadian historical fiction I’ve read has either been set in the prairie provinces or been from the point-of-view of European settlers (such as Bride of New France and Away), so The Orenda adds an important perspective to the mix.

Wab Kinew will defend The Orenda in Canada Reads 2014. In a recent CBC interview, he explains: “This book is asking us to consider ‘What is the spirit of this land? What is the content of the character of Canada?'” He goes on to describe how The Orenda highlights two great issues facing Canadians: reconciliation with First Nations/social justice and environmental consideration/respect for the land. It’s clear from reading The Orenda that these issues have been around for 400 years.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO RATING TO ASSIGN THIS BOOK! I finished reading this book over a month ago, but I still don’t know what rating to assign because I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that I didn’t really like it with the fact that I think it’s significant. For me, this discrepancy makes The Orenda stand apart from the other Canada Reads 2014 finalists.

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