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.

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!

West Elm on the West Coast


Anyone who enjoys design porn as much as I do will likely have already heard this by now, but West Elm has opened its doors on South Granville in Vancouver! Located between 13th and 14th Ave., their showroom is a decorative feast for the eyes. http://www.westelm.com/customer-service/store-locations/vancouver/
West Elm décor, furniture and fabrics have graced the pages of Canada’s House and Home magazine for years – interesting, modern pieces at affordable prices – but until now, the only Canadian store was located in Toronto (unfortunately many of the items/ads in House and Home are located in Toronto, but this is changing as Vancouver asserts itself more in the design world). West Elm is another store in the string of recent retail migrants from south of the border, including Anthropologie (on South Granville) and Nordstrom’s (arriving 2015 in the old Sears downtown).
West Elm is sister store to the more formal Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma; however, it is by far the cooler, older sister with a rebellious streak, who travels the world in her artistic pursuits. In fact, one of West Elm’s recent deco lines harks from designers in South Africa, who use vibrant colour palettes and joyful patterns.
From furniture for the living room and bedroom, to lighting, drapes, rugs and decorative wares, West Elm has a great selection of styles that strike a balance between modern industrial and traditional marbles and woods. These things are often combined to create unique pieces, such as the Wood Tiled 3-Drawer Dresser, seen below.

 

The cost of items seems to be on par or cheaper than many other furniture stores in Vancouver.  You can find table lamps from $69-$200, bed sheets at $79 for a queen set, and side tables for $200-$300. The rugs come in several desirable patterns and colours, and you can pick your size. Most of the largest rugs (8 x 10) range from $500-$900.
Even if you’re not in the market to redecorate or refurnish your place, West Elm is worth checking out.  You never know what you might find/need/want once you get there. And don’t forget – the Interior Design Show West is September 27-30at the Vancouver Convention Centre. http://idswest.com/Every year, the West Coast is making more and more of its mark in the design world, and rightly so!

A tragic hero for the modern day screen

There are few well-written, tragic characters on the screen these days.  While we often sympathize with characters who suffer terribly, we feel a familiar pity for them, and only rarely go through the catharsis meant to be induced by tragedy: shedding an embarrassed tear in a movie theatre, or sobbing uncontrollably in the comfort of our own home. We are comforted by this “release” of our emotions, or even by the reminder that our own circumstances aren’t so bad after all.
So what is the difference between tragic characters who are “familiar” and those that tap into true emotion? Do universally tragic characters exist? And what determines whether that character will resonate on a personal level? Going back to the classics, a tragic character is defined by his or her tragic flaw, and also by his or her potential for greatness. They must “fall” from an elevated place in order for the tragedy to be more fully realized. Typical tragic characters from the classical cannon are Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, while more modern ones can be found in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, or in many of Ernest Hemingway’s novels.
One of the best written tragic characters is Shakespeare’s King Lear. With Lear, we feel a deeper sense of pity than with other characters. Perhaps it is his age, or that he was once a great leader who lost it all in the end, including his own mind. Or maybe it is the undying faith of his daughter Cordelia, who even after he exiles her, returns to save her father from the torment of her sisters. This in itself is an indication of the man Lear must once have been – a loving father, a powerful soldier, a husband. Regardless of what it is, this character taps into a different, more profound sympathy that is difficult to put into words.
Even though Shakespeare was writing hundreds of years ago, modern tragedies tend to focus on similar topics: war, family relationships, death, and loss of purpose or identity. Boardwalk Empire, now in its second season, is not a tragedy in the classical sense, but it has its fair share of tragic characters. The most moving of these is Richard Harrow, played by British actor Jack Huston. Similar to Lear, Harrow evokes emotion more deeply than what we are accustomed to. Aptly named, as he is truly harrowing, this supporting character is a young WWI veteran who ends up in Atlantic City after he is befriended by one of the main characters, Jimmy Darmody.
Once a dapper soldier, Harrow is also one of the most recognizable characters, as he wears a mask on half of his face to cover up a tragic war injury. Despite the attempt to make the mask “match” the rest of Harrow’s face, it is poorly made, and his face looks slightly askew. The face plate is held in place by his glasses, and has hair to match his moustache – it is made somewhat ridiculous, evoking even more sympathy for this sensitive young gentleman who fought honourably for his country.
Harrow rarely looks people in the eyes, and struggles to speak, drink and eat, embarrassed by his affliction. Even though he is more comfortable without it, Harrow is fearful of removing the mask because of the effect it has on other people. While sleeping mask-less on a couch in the female protagonist’s home, her children run out of the room screaming in fear.
Yet, we can see that Harrow still cares about his appearance: he dresses nicely, takes good care of himself, and is physically fit. And the only thing he wants out of life is the love of a family. This is where writers Nelson Johnson and Terence Winter have done an expert job in tragic depiction – Harrow travels light, but is never without his talisman. It is an old book, plastered with magazine images of families: wives cooking dinner, children playing with their dads. A woman with which to share his life is Harrow’s ultimate dream, a dream that his friend Jimmy, with his wife and young son, takes advantage of again and again. Similar to Lear, Harrow desires a simple life after all he has suffered. But the audience knows deep down how difficult this will be for him to find, and we see that Harrow knows it when he attempts to take his own life.
It would be very easy to make this character more laughable than tragic; however, Jack Huston is a superb actor who captures the gentle, fragile and kind nature of Harrow, while creating mannerisms that never fail to highlight the difficulties of this man’s life.
It is rare to feel so genuinely for a television character, but Johnson and Winter have managed to achieve this with the character of Richard Harrow. They have written an uncommon tragic hero who is so very real, and who achieves a deeper connection to human suffering. He is just one example of how far television writing has come in recent years.

Waste Reducing, Appliance Recycling and Living in Containers: Three Green Initiatives for 2012

For many of us, the environment is at the top of our priority list when it comes to lifestyle. And businesses are catching on: people are more in tune with green ideas, and businesses are using incentives such as being carbon neutral as a way to attract customers. Recently, three green initiatives have been getting media attention in Canada, which are not only innovative, but in some cases, have the possibility of changing our culture entirely.
The first idea was presented on Dragon’s Den, and is called Event Water Solutions. This group from Orillia, Ontario has devised an ingenious way to reduce waste from water bottles at events. Essentially, they bring in a large sink system with several taps that hook into a local water supply. To avoid cross contamination, the Event Water staff fills the bottles for event-goers. If clients don’t have a water bottle, they can purchase one from Event Water. As a customer, this is a great way to save money, especially considering that bottled water is more expensive per litre than gasoline (think about that next time you leave your home without your own water bottle!). When questioned by the dragons as to why companies would want to implement something that reduces their profit margin, the team responded by saying, “We’re getting calls everyday”. It may be idealistic, but this could represent a real shift in cultural thinking: it is better to reduce landfill rather than making a quick buck. This is long term thinking rather than short term gain.
Next, we have Unplugged Small Appliance Recycling Program in British Columbia. According to the Unplugged website, in BC alone over 2 million small appliances end up in landfills every year; this means potentially hazardous materials going in to our environment. This recycling program, which has over 100 depots in British Columbia, is the first of its kind in Canada. They will recycle broken or used appliances, from toasters to electric toothbrushes to microwaves. Despite the small fee to cover the costs of staffing and recycling, it is well worth the positive effects on the environment. Visit their website for more information on how recycling reduces waste and energy costs in BC, and where you can recycle your small appliances.
Finally, a green scheme worth considering for long term urban development in Canada is the housing innovation of recycled shipping containers. A recent article on the Yahoo Canada home page describes a single mom in California who built a home out of a shipping container for $4000. She did the renovating herself; cutting out spaces for windows and doors, then adding insulation to both the walls and the floor. This woman, who has gone back to school, chose to live mortgage-free and spend more time with her daughter, while helping the environment by using recycled materials for both the central home and an extension to the space. Although it is unclear how much the land cost to build it on, Lulu has picked up on a revolutionary idea that is getting more and more media attention.
Yet, shipping container living has been around for several years now. In 2006, the History Channel ran a story about “Container City” located in the docklands of London, England.. Here, people can rent out 300 sq. ft. (the size of one container) of live-work space for $80-140 per month. It’s a cozy, but affordable space for people on a budget, especially here in Vancouver where renting 500 sq. ft. can cost upwards of $1500 per month. Built with 100% recycled materials, this Container City is a prime example of how to improve living conditions while being environmentally conscious.
In Canada, we have our very own container architect, Keith Dewey, who is the owner and designer of Zigloo.ca (zigloo.ca). At approximately $150-250 per sq. ft. to build (compared to paying $600+ per sq. ft. in Vancouver), these Zigloo homes are affordable, compact, and modern, and are making use of materials “destined for the scrap yard” as Dewey states in the Vancouver Sun (http://zigloo.ca/vancouver-sun-zigloo-article/). Dewey indeed lives in his very own container home on Vancouver Island, which cost a total of $360, 000. A Zigloo has also been designed for a residence in Squamish, titled the “Squamish Cargospace Living Project” (http://zigloo.ca/squamish-cargospace-living-project/).
Squamish Cargospace Living Project
 This home boasts the following green attributes: geothermal heating, wind power and a water recapturing system. It is unique, yet modern, and is reminiscent of Cam Frye’s super posh 80s home in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Other designs include enviro-friendly items like a green roof. Affordable housing has been on the political table for years in cities all across Canada, so my question to politicians and urban planners is what are you waiting for?
Our country and its people are doing impressive things to help the environment, and these three ideas only have room to grow. You don’t have to live in a Zigloo to be green-friendly, but consider other ways you might reduce, reuse and recycle materials in your life. It is cost-effective and better for our planet in the long run.