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!

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.

Recommended Summer Reads

Here are a few summer reads to get your list started. There is a focus on Canadian historical literature so far, but I will add more titles soon.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
This historical novel is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a servant girl from Ireland and a celebrated murderess, who divided social opinion in the mid-1800s, as many believed she was innocent. It takes place in Richmond Hill, Toronto and Kingston, and Atwood does a meticulous job of weaving Grace’s tale with accurate details from the social and economic realms of the time. Dr. Jordan has a curiosity for the ebbs and flows of the human mind and memory, and interviews Grace, to see if he can recover any clues to her innocence. Grace narrates her tale, full of trial and tribulation; a girl who just happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. She tells of precise memories both believable and inconceivable, leaving the reader to decide whether Grace is speaking the truth. A real mystery, this novel plunges the reader into a colourful time period, rife with superstition, spirituality, and extraordinary theories about the landscape of the human mind.


The Birth House
by Ami McKay
Set in Nova Scotia in the early 20th century, this novel focuses on a young woman named Dora Rare, who is learning the secrets and mysteries of being a midwife from the wise, spiritual Miss Babineau. It explores the tensions between old world medicine and new world ideas from Dr. Thomas, who pushes to open a clinic for pregnant women near the small town of Scots Bay. This novel explores Dora’s journey from a young, easy influenced teenager, who must deal with town gossip, the trials and upstarts of young love, and the tragedy of losses both big and small, to an experienced, confident woman. McKay’s descriptive, historical prose, and insight into the hearts and minds of women at the time, make this an indelible summer read.