The Orenda by Joseph Boyden


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The Orenda by Joseph Boyden received both acclaim and criticism for its depiction of First Nations peoples and historical account of pre-colonization in Central Canada. Reading the book, I couldn’t help thinking of a number of movies I had seen in the past, including The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Thunderheart, and especially Black Robe, which is based on the Canadian novel. Mostly stories where the lives and customs of First Nations tribes are observed by an outsider, but this book was a completely different experience for me.


The Orenda takes place during the mid-seventeenth century in Canada where what is now known as the province of Ontario was a vast wilderness and home for many First Nations people. The story has three narrators: Christophe (also known as the Crow), a stubborn French Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl adopted by the Huron; and Bird, a Huron warrior and leader, who becomes Snow Falls’ adopted father. The story spans several years starting with Snow Falls and Christophe coming to live with the Huron tribe and neither fitting in very well. The years are tense for the Hurons as they are worried about their feud with the Haudenosaunee, cannot rely on their alliance with the French and face other obstacles such as poor crops and new fatal diseases. All comes to a head when the Haudenosaunee attack the Huron tribe when they are at their weakest and all must fight and sacrifice to the tragic end.


I read a lot of criticism of Joseph Boyden’s lack of historical accuracy for this book. However, reading The Orenda purely to enjoy the story itself, I was astonished at Boyden’s powerful storytelling. I liked the tripartite point of view that provided the different perspectives (both European and First Nations) and emotional reactions of the main characters to the events that occur. I felt completely immersed in the world of the Huron village and was fascinated by the lives and customs of the people.


Thanks to years of desensitizing, I didn’t notice how violent the story was at first. But then after a few intense descriptions, I realized there was much more to come. So let me just say The Orenda is not for the squeamish. The book is full of vicious fighting and torture with all of the violence excruciatingly detailed.


Despite the criticism against it, The Orenda is an epic book and I believe it will continue to grow in stature, at least in Canada. Although I felt I have experienced this kind of story before, the three narrators blend together to bring a unique perspective of a time when the country was rapidly changing and the characters in the book were desperate to hold onto the beliefs that shaped their identity. It was a mesmerizing read and totally unforgettable.


8 Comments on “The Orenda by Joseph Boyden”

  1. Naomi says:

    I loved this book! I’m glad to hear you did, too. I don’t think I have one negative thing to say about it. One of the biggest criticisms has been the violence, but I think it has its place, and that Boyden did a wonderful job showing the importance of it in the story. As for the historical accuracy, I wonder if we will ever know for sure how accurate it is, or any other story taking place a few hundred years ago. All that aside, though, it was an amazing story.

  2. writereads says:

    Awesome review. I know I should read this book, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle the violence. I’ve read Three Day Road and it was wonderful, but also pretty dark. And Orenda is supposed to be even darker. I wish I weren’t such a wimp about that kind of thing. -Tania

    • I don’t know whether it’s a good thing that I could so easily shrug off that much grizzly violence. The book is stunningly good but the violence is part of the complexity of the history of pre-colonization and culture of the First Nations, so I don’t think it can be avoided unfortunately.

      • writereads says:

        I think it might be a good thing in that you can read amazing works of literature like this one. I would never ask that the telling of this particular story be sanitized, you’re right in that the violence can’t be avoided, I just sadly cannot handle reading about it. -Tania

  3. lauratfrey says:

    I’m always surprised when people talk about The Orenda and don’t talk about Black Robe. If/when I get my crap together and review, that’s basically gonna be what I’ll write about… why The Orenda is way way way better than Black Robe, that is 🙂

    I was also not horrified by the violence. I think it’s again, due to Black Robe being way more gross and gratuitous.

    • Of all the articles I read about The Orenda, I only saw one mention of Black Robe. I guess it’s been forgotten. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie several times. Look forward to your review of The Orenda!

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