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Book Review: "The Orenda," by Joseph Boyden

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What was life like for the first French Jesuits, men who rode in canoes up the St. Lawrence River to live with the Iroquois and the Huron? In Joseph Boyden's epic novel, The Orenda, Jesuit priests come to live with a community of Wendat-Huron people at a time of change and disaster.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

Boyden’s novel opens with a winter scene, from a time almost 400 years ago. Wendat warriers race along on snowshoes, pursued by their enemy, the Haudenosaunee. Slowing down the Wendat/Huron are a couple of prisoners—a Jesuit priest and a young Haudenosaunee/Iroquois girl. Their voices tell the story, along with the Wendat warrior, Bird.  

The Orenda is a powerful novel filled with war and torture but also tradition and love. Orenda means “life force” or “spirit” and the Jesuit Christophe is surprised that the  “savages” have a concept for “soul”. But the Wendat people give all beings an orenda. Animals, plants, rocks and rivers all have this life force, a concept that appalls the priest.

Very quickly I sank into the world of this novel—the warm and smoky longhouses, the carefully farmed fields of squash, corn and beans, and the lives of those who live there. The book is almost 500 pages long but I raced through it, captivated by the characters as they live through fifteen years of fortune and misfortune.

Most of the action in The Orenda takes place in a Wendat village near the Sweet Water Sea, now called Georgian Bay. At first the Jesuit Christophe has a poor grasp of the Wendat language and the people of the longhouse laugh at his speech and ridiculous ideas. Yet the black-robed man the Wendat call “a crow” shows a surprising resilience to hardship and derision. Bird, the Wendat narrator, says “the same creature I once laughed at and even pitied, I see, has grown into something I hadn’t imagined.”

And Bird cannot imagine the thousands of people soon to come to North America, people who will destroy his world. When Bird’s voice narrates he is often planning on where to make his next attack on the Haudenosaunee. His wife and daughters were killed in an Iroquois raid and he has an unquenchable thirst for revenge. He says, “I no longer care for peace.”

The Orenda is not novel for the faint of heart. The young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, watches Bird and his warriors kill her parents and prisoners, Wendat or Haudenosaunee, are tortured to death. One of the Wendat women explains to Snow Falls “We kill one another because we have been killed.” The Europeans have their own forms of torture and in this book Samuel Champlain has a cameo role in some of the worst of it.

Joseph Boyden has both European and Native North American ancestors and he has created a magnificent novel where readers listen to three complex and sympathetic narrators. This is not a book about “the noble savage” or the martyred priest. The Orenda goes beyond the stereotypes to create a rich and full story where two cultures clash in a world where no one has all the truth.

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