Boyden captures the brutal essence and contradictions of Canadian history with The Orenda

Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda, which made the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list this year, is another masterpiece that explores the inevitable changes, both palpable and subtle, brought on by the collision of two very different societies. Unlike Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, which both take place in the last 100 years, The Orenda is set in 17th century Canada. It was the era when European settlers, traders, and missionaries were making themselves known, and the Native populations, with resistance and curiosity, were left to deal with the consequences.

One of the most fascinating things about Boyden’s talent is his ability to narrate authentically from varied perspectives. In this case, he has developed three characters to tell the story of The Orenda: an important Huron war leader named Bird; the young Iroquois girl Snow Falls, whom he has kidnapped; and the Jesuit missionary Christophe, referred to as Christophe Crow or Crow (for his black robe as much as for his uselessness) by the Huron people.

It is a true epic, both in its proportions and other literary elements, such as beginning in medias res (the middle of the action). The war between the Iroquois and the Huron is already deeply entrenched, with death tolls, tortures, and resentments building up on each side. The story here begins with the Huron advantage over the Iroquois – and since Bird has lost his wife and daughters to the war, he steals Snow Falls to raise as his own. This recalls the epic story of the Trojan War as told in The Iliad, where Helen is stolen from Menelaus, the king of Sparta. This is the catalyst for the war between the Trojans and the Greeks, and in the same way, the Iroquois are incensed by the capture of Snow Falls. The violence in this story is also reminiscent of Homer’s epic; bloody descriptions of war and torture are par for the course in The Orenda.

In Christophe’s point of view, we see the frustrations of coming to this new land of the sauvages, but also the dedication to spreading the word of God. He reminds me of Christopher Marlowe in Heart of Darkness, by name of course, but also because Marlowe similarly navigates his way through unknown lands that lack civilization, but are full of mystery, wonder, and violence. Many times throughout the novel, Christophe leaves himself in the hands of God, understanding that whatever torment awaits him is meant to be. His character is a testament to the will of the missionaries, many of whom gained little ground in converting the Natives, but who remained, fought a war, and suffered greatly too. This is one of the many strengths of the novel; it does not dwell on one-sided hardships, but explores various perspectives. There are many harrowing and tragic situations, but very little judgment.

From Bird we get the voice of the Huron people. It is a voice that also expounds frustration and the desperate need to preserve a culture while keeping and strengthening trade relationships. Bird realizes that some of the tools and implements from foreigners have made their lives easier. But he also understands the tragedies brought by new disease and access to ammunition and the “shining wood”. He spends much of his time preparing for long journeys involving trade with the Europeans, or involving warfare with the Iroquois. He is a war chief who is very important to the survival of his people.

Snow Falls provides a foil for both Bird and Christophe, because she too suffers as an outsider who understands the difficult losses associated with war. The Hurons have killed her family, echoing Bird’s loss, and she must live among these people who are her enemy. Snow Falls never forgets her roots, but is also forced to survive and adapt to a new environment, like Christophe. Although this relationship breaks down throughout the novel, the two characters are connected through their “otherness”, and through religion (albeit Snow Falls is a gifted actress in this regard, and uses it to her advantage when necessary). She does find her own path and successes amongst the Huron, but ends up back where she began, in her special way.

Indeed, this is a novel of cycles – the cycle of life and death, the cycle of birth and renewal, the cycle of the seasons, and the cycle of returning home, whether it is physically or spiritually. The Orenda is also a novel of “threes”, a number Boyden has used thematically before in Three Day Road. In this new novel, there are three sides: the Huron, the Iroquois, and the Europeans, although the Europeans do eventually choose sides, the cultural conflict is always there. There are also the Three Sisters that are planted and harvested each year by the Hurons, three women who are simultaneously pregnant, and three Iroquois taken prisoner. On the Christian side there are three missionaries, three converts, and the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is a number that crosses cultural boundaries.

The climax of the story takes place during the final battle between the Iroquois and the Hurons. It is likely based on the true events of 1649, when the remaining Huron were forced to leave the safety of their palisades to take shelter on an island. Boyden demonstrates his incredible power for description during these final scenes; as a reader you are sitting amongst the Huron, fearful, and watching the world fall apart before your eyes.

Amidst all the blood, torture, and warfare (and it gets very gruesome in parts) this is a story about relationships and love. Love for your people, for the land, for your beliefs, for your family, and for your way of life. It is a story about how the soul (the orenda) is never lost; the Hurons demonstrated an unparalleled reverence for their dead (described so beautifully during the Feast of the Dead) and believed strongly in reuniting with lost friends and family in the afterlife. The fear of not meeting your family again was one of the major barriers to changing the Native belief system. It was seen as a betrayal that would last an eternity.

Boyden has once again captured the fine intricacies of cultural conflict, so integral to the shaping of Canadian society. He is a dedicated researcher, who is committed to the whole history and also to his craft. In The Orenda, Boyden intimately understands and reshapes the contradictions, the ironies, and the relationships that emerged during this time.

Other Canadian historical novels worth reading:

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Kanata by Don Gillmor

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Other historical novels worth reading:

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Josephine B Series by Sandra Gulland

Please share other historical novels you enjoyed and/or your opinion on The Orenda. I would love to hear your thoughts!

New Addition to Website

In my teaching career, I have been blessed with several mentors and colleagues who were more than willing to share resources and ideas. Thank you – you know who you are! I am eternally grateful. Therefore, I believe it is important to continue sharing resources, making them available to all teachers, all around the globe.

One of the most difficult things as a teacher is balancing your many roles in and out of the classroom. It is important for us to create communities of shared resources, so that teachers, particularly those new to the profession, can have something to build on. I know there are various forums out there to do this, but this is my own little piece of the larger puzzle. If you have any comments or suggestions about any of the resources here, please feel free to contact me.

Welcome to my new website!

Thanks for tuning in to my new website. Here you will find commentary on pop culture – from great reads to interior design to worthwhile restaurants and entertainment.

You can also check out the Writing and Editing Services page if you are looking for help in your very own writing endeavour! Likewise, click on the Creative Writing link at the top of the website for activities and ideas to get you started. I am in the process of getting this website organized and full of great content – your patience is much appreciated!

Great Reads: Ru by Kim Thuy


I’ll admit I was a little skeptical of Ru when I first read the excerpt on the back cover: references to the Tet Offensive, the blood of soldiers, and lost lives signaled a tragic and depressing story, and I wasn’t up for it. However, this first novel by Kim Thuy won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2010, among many other awards both local and international, so I put first impressions aside and followed the advice I’ve given many times never to judge a book by its cover.
What a relief to find a literary tour de force, so powerful in its prose that each vignette flows seamlessly into the next, leaving you eager for more. This remarkable fluidity is echoed in the title, Ru, which means lullaby in Vietnamese and small stream in French. Originally composed in French and translated into 15 other languages, this novel is set in Saigon during the Vietnam War, a refugee camp in Malaysia, and the promised land of Quebec. It loosely follows Thuy’s own experience as a survivor and immigrant.
The structure is atypical for a novel; most of the chapters are only one or two pages, each focusing on a different memory. In some ways it reads like a long poem, each word chosen carefully for its distinct meaning, vibrance, and delicacy. In other ways these chapters are like short, cinematic scenes. Each one is a new lesson, a new insight into the subtleties of human nature, based on the wisdom of someone who has witnessed the disappearance of everything familiar and safe.
Amidst stories of loss and hardships are tales of hope, unexpected generosities and love. There is a reverence for the people of Quebec who welcome main character An Tinh with open arms, and there are reflections on an animated past full of tradition in Saigon. There are darker moments highlighted by the arrival of the Communist soldiers, the poverty that leads to personal and physical sacrifice, and the lives wasted in the carelessness of war. 
 
Ru is a quick read, too short in my opinion. I find Thuy’s powers of description addictive, and will certainly give this book a second and third read. The novel has left an indelible impression on me; I will not remember the details, but I will remember Ru fondly as a novel that brought me pure joy.
Click here for an interview with Kim Thuy where she talks about her experience in writing this novel.

Great Reads: Joan Didion’s Run River


Joan Didion is a prolific writer of the authentic American experience. In university, I wrote my honours paper on Didion, so had the opportunity to read all of her works, some of them several times. Despite this, I was always newly struck by her powers of description, and her ability to convey so much with so very few words – the quintessential sign of a natural born writer.
We typically tend to forget specific details about books we read; we are merely left with an impression or feeling about the work, whether it be positive, negative, intrigued or bemused. Although I never wrote a paper about Run River, it was a book that always left an impression on me. The feeling is somewhat indescribable (if only I had Didion’s way with words), but the book always conjured a dark, country road meandering alongside a river, an ominous feeling in the air. I could see car headlights on that road, or shining deep in that river.
Ten years later and I pick up the book again, to find out more about this car and this river, and why it made a difference to me as a reader. Written in 1963, but set in the 1930s-50s, Run River pivots around the story of Lily McClennan, and how her many trysts get both her and her marriage into trouble. It also touches on the history of California, both Lily and her husband Everett having descended from pioneers, their families made wealthy by land ownership and farming. It is a time of religion and racism, and in the background the sense that California, the land of milk and honey, can fulfill the American dream.
However, this dream is overshadowed by disloyalty and dysfunction, and the idea that what one has is never good enough. There is the looming possibility of breaking with tradition and selling the family farm to larger shareholders; Everett is “fighting the war” in Texas instead of helping his family; and intelligent, good looking Martha, Everett’s sister, can’t seem to get her life on the right track. And then there’s Lily, whose loose morals are uncharacteristic of her time. With a reputation for having affair after affair, her nonchalance about sleeping with other men is troublesome. Lily seems to do it out of habit, gaining little from these intimate moments, which would somehow make them more excusable. Perhaps this is Didion’s way of saying how easily we take advantage of what we have, with little to gain by putting everything on the line.
There are many references to the unbearable weather near Sacramento; it’s either exhaustingly hot or raining, and we get many scenes of Lily alone, shut up in her bedroom against the heat, some liquor or another on her bedside table. In fact, most of the women in this story drink alcohol like they’d drink their tea – anytime of day will do. It sometimes reads like a Desperate Housewives of the 1940s and 50s, full of gossip, ill intentions and forbidden love triangles.
Despite Lily being somewhat unlikeable, her characterization and the novel’s plot in general, strike me as a realistic view on the difficulties of living up to society’s, your parents’, or even your own expectations. I particularly like that Didion lived through the 1950s, and has a more visceral understanding of what that meant. Although I am enamored by many historical pieces about the post-war era, they are often written by people who never lived those moments. And Didion’s no-nonsense style of storytelling is typical of all her work – she effortlessly characterizes the truths of human nature, all the good, the bad, and the ugly. At times, the novel is unnecessarily complicated, but I chalk this up to it being Didion’s first novel, before honing her craft.
So what did the river and those lights represent in the end? The rain, the river, the cycle of life and that we are destined to repeat our ancestors’ mistakes? Maybe. The car sinking in the river, its headlights slowly fading away – the extinguished American dream? Perhaps. Regardless, that image will forever stay with me, and it will keep bringing me back to the merits of Joan Didion and Run River.

Main Street Gossip


The only consistent thing about Main Street in the Mount Pleasant area of Vancouver is that it’s always changing. Restaurants come and go, antique shops close down to make way for more modern ware/wear, and heritage buildings get taken over by the more financially viable, if unattractive, “Cash Money”.  Stay tuned for all the details on what’s new in our ever evolving neighbourhood!

The Gossip – Coffee and Baked Goods
Since we moved to Mount Pleasant a year and a half ago, we have seen various establishments go under, or get torn down and redeveloped, usually into more appealing venues. And often, the focus is on coffee and baked goods. And with the success of so many of these places so close together, it is obvious that Vancouverites covet their coffee and sugary treats.
Within about a year, and within seven blocks of one another, six different places opened to serve caffeinated drinks and sweet fare.  One of my top choices, Forty Ninth Parallel, is a gourmet coffee roaster with delectable donuts to boot (try the peanut butter and jelly, they are to die for). This place is always bustling with customers, so be ready to wait in line on the weekends, and to clamor for a seat. They often play their music loud, so if you’re looking for a quieter place to work, try another venue such as Gene Café or JJ Bean at 14thand Main.
French Made Baking, located on Kingsway between 8th and Broadway, is another new bakery worth a pit stop. Owned and operated by men and women who are authentically French, it is small and unassuming; and the sign does little to communicate the charm within. They specialize in the now trendy macaron, but also boast other sinful treats, such as the real pain au chocolat, layers of delicious pastry surrounding little surprises of dark chocolate. Their café au lait also merits a taste – it is rich and creamy, and begs for regular croissant dipping. Be prepared, however, for the strange hours French Made Baking keep: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. throughout the week.
Only a few stores down the block from the French bakery is La Petite Cuillère, which in many ways is an homage to typical British tea houses. Despite the oddity that an English tea house has a French name, and the French bakery an English one, La Petite Cuillere is recommended for its savoury lunches and sweet dessert offerings. Try the quiche and salad, or the pesto chicken wrap (a great to-go option), along with one of their many inspired tea options. One of the most memorable things about this place is the women who run it: they are two sisters with their mother, and they all exude kindness and positivity.
Across the street and connected to the Mount Pleasant Community Centre is the newly refurbished Pleasant Beans, a good place to stop for JJ Bean coffee after one of the many activities on offer at the centre. The coffee shop often has homemade granola bars (yum!), and also make grilled cheese (for the kiddies, but who’s kidding who, we adults love them too).
I have yet to try newest additions The Last Crumb, a mere block and a bit from Forty Ninth Parallel and JJ Bean, or Bonchaz Bakery at the corner of Main and Broadway. Although Bonchaz may be next on my list, as they offer a free muffin with coffee before 11 a.m., or so local legend claims. Let me know if you’ve tried either, and what you think!

 

Check in soon for the latest gossip on restaurants, breweries, and clothing stores in Mount Pleasant!

New Donut in Town


Despite the saturated coffee market along Main St. in Vancouver, another café seemed to magically appear overnight in early June: the Forty Ninth Parallel. Located at the corner of 13th Ave. and Main, it was kept a well-hidden secret via temporary walls and scaffolding plastered in graffiti and concert advertisements.
And what an attractive surprise once it was revealed.
The building pays homage to wood and industry, and has an authentic, robust atmosphere, circa fur trading posts in the 19thcentury. Dark woods mingle with black metal and rust-coloured brick. The ceilings are high with wire light fixtures that dangle from above. One of the eating areas is a long, communal table fitted with seats that swing out on metal arms from underneath. From here, you can watch the pastry chefs hard at work making delicious treats behind tall glass that boasts the name “Lucky’s”, established in 2010. The space is generous, yet cozy.
 Things have come full circle, as people become drawn to spaces with a genuine rather than synthetic, or even cheap, feel.
It opened its doors the second weekend in June, and by 9 a.m. Saturday morning, the place was buzzing with customers. Despite the popularity of places such as JJ Bean (located just a block away) and Our Town, people in the Mount Pleasant community were clearly thirsty for something new. Or maybe it was merely the new scene, where hipsters come to be seen; yet, the place was filled with all types of people – the young, the old, families, couples, and singles working on their next novel.
Six months later and the place is still abuzz with animated people sharing stories over rich-tasting coffees, often accompanied by a to-die-for peanut butter and jelly donut, or curiously delicious apple bacon fritter. These are not your typical Tim Horton variety donuts. Forty Ninth Parallel coffee may be expensive, but it is bold and makes no excuses – and they have a feature scone or donut every day that can be paired with a drip coffee for $4. Not terrible considering a specialty beverage at Starbuck’s (whose beans aren’t nearly as sophisticated) runs closer to $5. And to top it all off, the coffee at 49th Parallel is Fair Trade, making it more justifiable as a daily purchase.
The original 49th Parallel (sans Lucky’s Donuts) is located on 4th Ave. in Kitsilano, but is soon moving to a larger location down the street at the corner of Yew and 4th Ave., in what used to be Kitsilano Coffee. This new space will include a Lucky’s Donuts of its own for shoppers, strollers, and runners in Lulu Lemon pants to enjoy.Stay tuned for more information on its grand opening!