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The Orenda

October 7, 2013


It has been a long time since I read a 500-page novel in two days, but I couldn’t put this one down (fortunately, one of those days was a day off). This latest novel by Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road, is excellent.

For those two days, I was immersed in early 17th-century Canada, before it was Canada, at a time when Samuel de Champlain had established the French settlement at Quebec City and was exploring around the Great Lakes, when Jesuit missionaries were trying to bring Christianity to the ‘heathens’, and the Iroquois were at war with the Huron nations . . .

In The Orenda, three narrators tell the story; Christophe is a French Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, a teenaged girl, is a member of the Haudensaunee nation (Iroquois) who has been kidnapped by the Wendats (Huron); and Bird is a Wendat warrior eager to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughters at the hands of the Iroquois. These three characters come together at the beginning and despite their radical differences remain tied to each other. Bird wants to keep Christophe around so the Wendat can learn the ways of these strange “crows.” And he also wants to adopt Snow Falls as his daughter even though she is of the enemy. Snow Falls resists for a long time, but eventually starts making herself at home among the Wendat.

There is a lot going on in the novel, with the tensions between the Huron and Iroquois heating up, the Jesuit mission on tenuous ground, sicknesses brought by the Europeans spreading among the Huron, plus the dynamics of Huron village life. Survival is not guaranteed for anyone. Boyden’s depiction of life among the Huron is fascinating, so detailed and vivid. The characters are complex as are the situations they face and the decisions they must make.

I think everyone (at least, every Canadian) should read this novel, though as a warning, there are several gruesome scenes of torture and warfare. I winced and wanted to shut my eyes while reading at times. I remember a similar feeling reading Boyden’s Three Day Road, his novel about two Cree soldiers in World War I (also an excellent read).

The Orenda has been long-listed for the 2013 Scotia Bank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction. I haven’t read any of the other novels on the lists, but I hope Boyden wins the prize for this amazing novel. I can’t say enough. Read this book!

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