Joseph Boyden is a Canadian writer who was born in Toronto in 1966 and is of Irish, Scottish and Métis descent. Over the past few years, he has achieved a reputation as one of Canada’s major authors. As the online Canadian Encyclopedia notes,
Boyden became widely known in Canada following the publication of his debut novel Three Day Road in 2005, which won numerous awards and was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. His second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Boyden’s work focuses on the historical and contemporary experience of First Nations peoples of northern Ontario.
His third novel, The Orenda, was published in 2013 and was greeted with high expectations. Advanced reviews declared it a masterpiece.
The Orenda … is a fictional take on 17th century missionaries in Wendake (modern day central Ontario). The story follows three main characters said to be based on Jean de Brébeuf, a Huron leader, and a Haudensosaunee captive, in the lead up to the dispersal of the Huron in the Iroquois wars. The novel was on the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was also nominated for a Governor General’s Award.
Although it did not win Canada’s major literary awards, it did win the CBC Canada Reads competition for 2014. Two of my Canadian friends read it and urged me to do so.
Having just finished it, I understand why The Orenda did not win these awards. This is a highly controversial novel. I myself have mixed feelings about it. Boyden’s research is extensive and he is certainly a good storyteller. I was especially moved by the account of the Huron’s relocating their sacred burial site when they had to move to a fresh planting area. I was, however, disturbed by the excessive violence and the detailed descriptions of torture. These are nothing short of horrific. I too was critical of how Boyden characterizes the first nations peoples as “noble savages.”
I often prefer to read reviews and critical assessments of a novel after having read it; this way I am free to develop my own response before becoming unduly influenced by others. First Nations scholar Hayden King is highly critical of Boyden’s novel, arguing that it perpetuates stereotypes:
The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada: Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization.
The Orenda is told by three alternating narrators, beginning with the Jesuit priest who, because of his long black robe and constant preaching, is called the Crow. The other two narrators are Bird, the heroic Huron leader, and his adopted daughter, Snow Falls, a young Iroquois who was taken by Bird when his own wife and daughters were massacred. According to King,
Christophe the Crow tells a story they [Canadians] know and can identify with. It’s through his eyes they see and interpret the New World. He becomes the protagonist, the doomed hero that reinforces colonial myths of savagery on the one hand, and salvation, on the other – “survival in the face of hostile Natives.”
King also states that he hasn’t “read a book as violent since McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” I thought that a noteworthy comparison. Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, which is about the bloody 1846 US Mexican War, was written to demythologize America’s expansion of the Western frontier. However, in Boyden’s novel, the unrelenting violence of the First Nations’ warriors becomes the focus. Not only are they fearsome warriors, but they are able to withstand days of torture at the hands of their enemies without flinching. Their heroism is glorified.
The Orenda is set in the early 17th century when Québec was New France and the French were determined to establish themselves with the aid of the church. They also decided to trade with the Huron to facilitate establishing themselves; however, the Iroquois inhabit the area near the settlement of Quebec City and want the French to leave. (There is continued mention of the diseases they brought with them and distrust of their religion.)
This is why the Iroquois declare war on the Huron; the novel seems to be quite accurate historically, and the descriptions and development of the characters along with the dialogue probably puts this novel on a par with Hilary Mantel’s, only within a Canadian (postcolonial) context.
What is unsettling is the extreme violence. One can understand King’s objections. This is not an aspect of the First Nations we expect to find highlighted. What we end up with is an account of how the first Nations succeeded in destroying themselves with the aid of the Europeans, who brought more than just disease and their religion. They also brought guns, which they were only to willing to trade. Undoubtedly, these weapons contributed immensely to the demise of the First Nations. It’s not simply that the so-called Canadian perspective is privileged. Boyden suggest how the French and the English actively participated in the destruction of the indigenous peoples.