Critical Review of Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”: A Timeless, Classic Colonial Alibi

I wanted to like Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. I’ve been a fan of Boyden’s work. Three Day Road, Born With a Tooth and Through Black Spruce all had compelling themes of redemption amid loss. Moreover, the advanced reviews proclaimed The Orenda a masterpiece, Quill & Quire calling the book a “magnificent literary beast”. So I was eager to read and happy to get an advanced copy from the publisher. Within the first few of the nearly 500 pages, it was clear why it was receiving the glowing reviews. But it was also clear I wouldn’t like the book. The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada: Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization. The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people. These themes work together to convey the message that the disappearance of the Huron and the loss of their orenda was destined happen.

The book takes place in Wendaki, or contemporary central Ontario (in fact the community that I come from, Gchi’mnissing in southern Georgian Bay, plays an important role as a haunted safe haven). It covers the last years of the Huron Confederacy, after they’ve formed a trade relationship with the French and on the eve of their dispersal by the Iroquois in a period sometime between 1640 and 1650. To tell a fictionalized account of this story and provide space for each representative group Boyden uses a useful narrative device, shifting the perspective between three characters: Bird, a Huron warrior and leader, Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl adopted by the Huron, and finally and Christophe the Crow, a Jesuit missionary who comes to live among Bird and Snow Falls and based on Jean de Brebeuf (if readers don’t know the history of Brebeuf, this review includes what might be considered spoilers).

While less complex, the multi-narrative technique is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It works for The Orenda especially well because it neatly divides the three central perspectives, often re-telling the same episode from each point of view. The device is also used, I think, to attempt to provide balance to the story and equal space to each of the three groups involved in French colonization. Indeed, in his review of The Orenda the Montreal Gazette’s literary critic Ian McGillis praises Boyden for his fairness and “refus(ing) to draw easy lines between good and bad” and if there are “nominal villains” they are the Jesuits. Boyden himself has said a goal in writing the book was to recount an accurate history without casting blame or making it about “white hats and black hats.”

But almost immediately black hats do emerge. It turns out that the Haudenosaunee are not represented well at all. The girl Snow Falls soon becomes Wendat and the only other Iroquois character of note is Tekakwitia, leader of the army that eventually destroys the Huron and tortures to death Christophe the Crow (and he appears only in the final chapters). In addition, the plot driving the story from the first pages is the threat posed by the relentless and terrifying Haudenosaunee. Bird, Christophe and many of the minor characters spend most of their time worrying and preparing for the inevitable attack, sometimes out-maneuvering the Iroquois, but always living in fear. So readers learn very little except that they’re a menace, lurking in the dark forest, waiting to torture or cannibalize. In light of this limited (or skewed) portrayal it’s hard not to see the Iroquois as “nominal villains”.

Early in the book, the Jesuits don’t fare well either. Christophe is portrayed as bumbling and ominous. Yet he ends up doing the bulk of the storytelling and has to be considered the central character of The Orenda. He is the anxious and pious Jesuit who arrives among the Huron in a time of war, hopelessly inept until finding his footing (or in this case his voice, the language of the Wendat), and finally earning conversions, becoming an authority among the Huron, and eventually dying a martyr. His perseverance, dedication and selflessness in the wilderness seem familiar. It actually reminded me of Atwood’s take on the nature of Canadian literature generally. She writes,

“The central symbol for Canada — and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature – is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance…it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of “hostile” elements and/or natives…”

Atwood even cites literature about Brebeuf as an example or Canadian survivance. So The Orenda reinforces who and what Canadians believe they are. Christophe the Crow tells a story they know and can identify with. It’s through his eyes they see and interpret the New World. He becomes the protagonist, the doomed hero that reinforces colonial myths of savagery on the one hand, and salvation, on the other – “survival in the face of hostile Natives.”

Hostile is an understatement. The vivid descriptions of torture are excessive. I haven’t read a book as violent since McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Interestingly that was also a story about colonization, the violence reflecting a lawless, incomplete social order but also a comment on the universality of violence among humans. This is a contrast to The Orenda, where violence and torture is both the exclusive domain of the Indians and endemic in their societies since time immemorial. The inevitable conclusion is that Indians were really just very violent. It’s not a surprising conclusion considering that Boyden seems to rely heavily on travelogues (journals of Jesuits) for his historical information. This despite the obvious bias stemming from the interest Jesuits had in perpetuating tales of savagery among the Indians – it justified their own existence, after all. So problematic are these accounts of sadism, they’ve long been excused by critical thinkers, many academics, and Indigenous peoples themselves. The Haudenosaunee have insisted that some of the practices depicted in the book ended hundreds of years earlier.

There are other tropes throughout. There is mystical Indian, reflected in a “magical” Anishinaabe sorceress and to a lesser extent Snow Falls. Both can (or have the potential) to see the future and heal in inexplicable ways. There is also the child-like Indian, Hurons who are awe-struck anytime the French introduce something foreign: a crystal chalice, muskets, a clock. Finally there is the noble Indian, reflected in Christophe’s frequent caveat in his musings on their heathenism (i.e. these Indians are child-like savages but, oh Lord, they are as beautiful and stoic as the most impressive Greek statues). All of this is not to say the characters are one-dimensional. They aren’t. Snow Falls, Bird and others are complex, coming from a community with well developed culture, economy, spirituality, relationships, and so on. Yet their component traits resemble outdated narratives of Native people, which have been used in the past to justify civilizing policies.

The consequences of these themes – the marginalization of the perspective of the Haudenosaunee, the centering of the Jesuit point of view and the cultivation of old tropes, specifically the savage Indian – amount to a tale about the inevitability of colonization. The vanishing Indian was ordained (even desirable) because of his/her character. Indeed the un-named Sky People who open each section of the book observe the carnage below and conclude the grim history was pre-determined partly because of the selfishness, arrogance and short-sightedness of the Huron. Even Christophe’s torturer, Tekakwitia, will be converted: soon after the events of the book take place Kateri Tekakwitia is born, living a Christian life and eventually becoming a Catholic saint. It’s a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Oreda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi.