* CONTAINS SPOILERS
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.