“But hindsight is sometimes too easy, isn’t it? And so maybe this is what Aataentsic wants to tell. What’s happened in the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason the future is always just a breath away. Now is what’s most important, Aataentsic says. Orenda can’t be lost, just misplaced. The past and the future are present.”
Wendat (Huron) war-bearer Bird has lost his wife and daughters to Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) raiders. In return, he kills a party of Haudenosaunee, and claims one of their children, Snow Falls, to be his new adopted daughter, and she grows to adulthood among the Wendat. But Snow Falls is recognized by the Haudenosaunee as possessing a special gift, and they are willing to go to war to reclaim her. Tensions between the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee reach new heights. In addition to Snow Falls, Bird brings home another newcomer. The Wendat have allied themselves with the French against the Haudenosaunee, and in exchange for trade, they agree to accept Jesuit priests into their midst. Father Christophe, called the Crow by the Wendat, hopes to save many souls, but it proves more difficult than he could have possibly imagined to convey the story of the Great Voice to the “sauvages” and convince them to change their ways. The lives of these three people tell the story of three nations colliding at a critical moment in history.
Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe take turns telling the story, each narrating their perspective to a particular audience. Bird addresses his dead wife, Snow Falls speaks to her lost parents, and Christophe prays, and writes reports to his superior. I found it difficult to submerge myself in the narrative given these constant reminders of an invisible audience, but it did serve to remind me of each character’s motivations—what they had lost, and what they hoped to gain. The divided perspective also gives a certain balance to the narrative, representing the Wendat, Jesuit, and—to a lesser extent—Haudenosaunee perspectives. Arguably, Snow Falls is not the perfect representative for the Haudenosaunee, given that she is little more than a child when she stops living with them. The three perspectives do serve to somewhat fragment the narrative arc, which is further fractured by skipping over large chunks of time and significant events between sections. From a storytelling perspective, the triple narration means that by trying to balance out the three speakers, Boyden ends up retreading many events. The Orenda feels long, and the pacing is uneven.
The Haudenosaunee, while more distant as a result of the fact that their only representative is Snow Falls, did not feel more villainous or blameworthy than the other players, though of course they are the enemy of the Wendat, and drive much of the narrative tension. Hayden King has gone further and argued that the Hadenosaunee do little more than “torture or cannibalize,” but the Wendat engage equally in these practices. While we do not see the French engage in torture, their predations are present, from Snow Falls’ near-rape, to Hot Cinder’s actual violation, to Isaac’s final, horrifying betrayal of the Wendat Christian converts. The torture and warfare was gruesome, but more often than not, it was the condescension and presumption of the Jesuits that horrified me. In short, no one comes out looking good. It is war, and it is ugly.
The Orenda was the front runner on Canada Reads 2014 right from Wab Kinew’s opening remarks. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood was eliminated on day one, and Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan followed on day two. Annabel by Kathleen Winter was a surprise elimination on day three. In the final, The Orenda faced off against Cockroach by Rawi Hage, with Wab Kinew defending against charges that The Orenda might perpetuate stereotypes about First Nations people that have been used to justify colonialism. Kinew argued that the book does not justify colonialism, but rather reasserts the aboriginal voice and reclaims history. He felt that the spirit voices that introduce each section of the book provide the necessary context to understand the more difficult parts of aboriginal culture that were depicted. However, I think the decisive moment for The Orenda actually came on the second day, when the first free agent, Stephen Lewis, attacked the “almost pornographic” violence of the torture scenes. Kinew spoke to the role of torture in allowing the warriors to give a final display of their honour, and the importance of unsettling reading experiences in challenging assumptions. While the violence continued to come up through the week, the objections were less serious after this debate. I was part way through The Orenda when this debate took place, and hadn’t yet reached a torture scene, but having now finished the book, I can say that while the torture scenes—particularly the final one—are very graphic, they did not make up as much of the book as the debates might have led me to believe. Ultimately, Wab Kinew was a strong defender, and in many cases his defense was powerful than the book itself, as he spoke eloquently on a variety of issues from reconciliation to environmentalism. In the hands of a less articulate defender, this book could have been decimated.