Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda (2013)

Twenty-two years ago, I clipped an article from a Toronto newspaper about the restoration of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons near Midland, Ontario.

I had studied the history of the mission and the slaughter of the Jesuit priests when I was in elementary school, culminating in a vague understanding of it all: devotion, discovery, torture.

The natives in their homeland, equally engaged in that story in reality, did not figure into my imaginings of that other time and place. And words like ‘slaughter’ were not used to describe the ways in which any natives died, if they did ever appear in the story.

The article brought those social studies classes to mind and describes candlelight tours, with the evening mist rolling in and suggests attendees might expect Father Brébeuf to appear around a corner.

It seems intended as a reassuring thought: a moment of pagentry, in which the gentle and understanding priest, a martyr for his faith, could once more walk the grounds in imagination.

There is no nudge to envision the Wendat, whom the Europeans called the Huron, nor the other native peoples on the land. (No hint at the presence of their orenda, or life force, around corners or elsewhere, in later years.)

A novel like Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda affords readers the opportunity to fill some gaps in the story.

Not only for those readers who studied the mission as part of the movement to discover new territories, those schoolchildren who missed the fact that these lands were homelands (hence: colonizing not exploring).

But also for those readers who are unaware of these events entirely, who might think the history of this region dull and irrelevant.

The Orenda offers readers multiple voices and affords the natives in their homeland the perspective of witness to the incursion of the Jesuit missionaries.

Snow Huron Village_0001

Photograph by Michael Odesse, from Saint-Marie Among the Hurons (OUP, 1980)

“We wander the village, taking in the strange sights. A number of houses keep the men who’ve come all this way, and the crows have built a large place for communing with their great voice, a shining cross inside on a platform, and many benches to sit upon. Another building stores corn in one room and small game in the other. If this is all of their supplies, the crows will be in grave trouble this winter.”

Brébeuf does not just appear around the corner in Joseph Boyden’s novel; he claims a good portion of The Orenda, as Christophe, loyal Jesuit. He is one of the crows observed in the fledgling mission in this passage, potentially unprepared for winter. And, certainly, unprepared for the violence ahead.

“But most fascinating is that within the palisades and behind a fence are a few poorly built longhouses and Anishnaabe wigwams. We wonder why these houses are separated from the rest of the village until Snow Falls sitting with the young one called He Finds Villages and Dawning of Day in front of a well-built longhouse. They explain that only Wendat who have accepted the Great Voice can live in the better houses.”

Snow Falls is one of the novel’s other two key narrative voices, and she too is observed in this passage. But she was introduced as a young girl, a character untethered; her Haudenosaunee family has been killed by the Wendat, and she is a captive.

“Those first few days when I arrived, I planned to try and escape, but the one named Bird watches me too closely, even though it appears he doesn’t. Now I know I can’t escape, and a death song begins to form in my head and I try to find the song by humming just under my breath, but it won’t come to me. I want to be with my parents and my brother. I don’t want to be here surrounded by those who slaughtered them. I am trying, now, to learn how to die.”

Bird’s is the third strong narrative voice. He has lost his family to the Haudenosaunee, and is still haunted by their deaths, and finds those losses reinvigorated by his proximity to Snow Falls’ grief.

“I remember what it felt like to come home from a long journey, to walk into the longhouse and our arms, our girls hugging my legs. I’ve not been able to move on from you even though I know you want me to.”

Each of their voices is distinct from the beginning. And this serves, too, to emphasize the spaces between their perspectives.

Bird advises Christophe, for instance:

““You can’t choose the middle. Paddle or don’t paddle tomorrow. If you don’t paddle” – he looks at me – “then maybe tell those in your canoe a story about your god. If you do paddle, don’t talk, just paddle. Paddle until the rest of us stop paddling.” He studies my face to see if I understand. “There is no middle out here.” He lifts his arms, as if welcoming the world to him.”

By nature, Christophe views himself as possessing superior truths. He believes himself fully capable of talking and paddling, and seems to see no other wisdom in Bird’s advice.

Orenda Boyden

Hamish Hamilton – Penguin Canada, 2013

Joseph Boyden’s version of the paternalistic Jesuit is definitely more multi-faceted than the traditional holy martyr tale that schoolchildren hear; Christophe is openly condescending and outwardly mistaken. (Nonetheless, it still seems as though his voice dominates the tale, perhaps simply because of its expository tone.)

“What appalls me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground.”

The familiar scene of cultures colliding, with Champlain at dinner with the natives, unfolds as expected.

“All of the warriors’ eyes watch Champlain, waiting to see what he will do. He picks up his napkin and tucks it into his collar under his chin. The others try to mimic, some who wear their breastplates finding a purchase for the serviette.”

Readers are afforded the opportunity to consider whether those warriors are watching out of a lack of understanding or whether out of wonder (or both); the Jesuit priest may have held the position of prominence in past narratives, but The Orenda reminds readers that they are the new arrivals out-of-place, when the novel’s perspective shifts. The native gaze is of equal importance in that scene.

“Lack of understanding or wonder? We are the people birthed from the land. For the first time I can see something I’ve not fully understood before, not until now as these pale creatures from somewhere far away stare down at us in wonder, trying to make sense of what they see. We are this place. This place is us.”

Images of disorientation, discord, and fracture proliferate. They are often caught in a state of betweens, partly one state and partly another.

Consider the image of severed limbs and blood from multiple parties streaming together. “So much blood, black in the moonlight, pools over the flat rock. I see as he stands that I must have done a very good job. Not one but two fingers lie on the stone.”

Consider, too, the silhouette of a black bird, alighting or landing (perhaps a crow, perhaps a raven), beneath the striking dust jacket.

These images echo and resonate within the story as well. There is a memorable scene in which Snow Falls takes the carcass of a raven and removes its insides and rebuilds.

This is a visceral and wondrous, brutal and delicate, process. The scene is haunting on a literal level. But Sleep Long’s advice to her is stunning, when one considers that the Crows (the Jesuits) are destroying and rebuilding humans in the same way.

“You’ll be very careful for days to try and make it how you want it, and then you’ll begin to get forgetful, and then before you know it, you’ll wake up one morning and the bird will be a shrunken old woman with one wing pointed up and the other straight out with its claws curled up into balls and you’ll never get it to stand.”

These layers in crafting are notable, but the work seems likely to be most powerful for those readers who are discovering the story behind this novel for the first time, for whom the voices of the peoples Snow Falls and Bird are fresh wonders.

As a contribution to the process of restoring other voices to the process of remembering and rebuilding, a presence overlooked in too many social studies classrooms and for too many years, The Orenda is valuable indeed.

I think of Daniel David Moses’ poem, “Daucus Carota En Passant”, which also recalls the early years before ‘discovery’, before ‘invasion’.

“Let’s lift up these burnished cups and / Salute with a toast all that is / Divided, every thing that’s lost.”*

Have you read this novel? Or others on this year’s Giller Prize longlist?

IFOASmallBadgeJoseph Boyden appears this week in Toronto as part of the 34th International Festival of Authors.

He will participate tonight in the Governor General’s Literary Award Finalists event on Monday October 28, 2013 at 8pm.

He will participate tomorrow in the “University of British Columbia Anniversary Celebration” with several other writers (including some discussed here previously: Théodora Armstrong, Wayne GradyAnnabel Lyon and Ania Szado), Tuesday October 29, 2013 at 8pm

This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration. 

*Daniel David Moses. A Small Essay on the Largeness of Light and Other Poems (Exile Editions, 2012)



  1. […] Boyden’s Through Black Spruce (2008) I came to this novel after reading The Orenda, which I did not love as much as many other readers did. And, at first, neither of the alternating […]

  2. […] Photograph by Michael Odesse, from Saint-Marie Among the Hurons (OUP, 1980). Source: Buried in Print. […]

  3. susan May 13, 2014 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    The Orenda sounds like an intriguing read. But I’m still wondering before I pick it up, is it a dense, hard to get through read? Or a fast, historical read? Is it gripping or a bit of a slog? Thanks

    • Buried In Print May 15, 2014 at 9:18 am - Reply

      At first I read only about 20 pages a day. I had trouble settling into the voices, so I actually read aloud, to give myself time with them, and thought this might be the case for the entire novel (!), but somewhere around a third of the way in, the pacing changed for me and I read the rest over a couple days. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the different narrators, but I kept hoping that there would be another voice in the story, an alternate view of the Haudenosaunee, so I guess I found it dense and slow reading until I got into JB’s rhythm of storytelling and set aside my own expectations. The conflict is inherently gripping, but of course war is an uncomfortable theme, so I’m guessing that those forces cancel each other out and it comes down to whether you personally connect with the storyteller’s voice/intentions. Maybe read far enough to sample each of the three voices, and then decide if the timing is right for you to give it a try?

  4. Shivanee @ Novel Niche November 21, 2013 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    This book sounds like places I want to be. I’m very interested in reading widely (and wildly?) from the canon/s of First Nations/indigenous literature of the world, and this, with what you point out to be its talents for broadening the conversation, sounds essential.

    (I found “Daucus Carota En Passant” online, read it to myself, and thought, these are words for inhabiting.)

  5. Lee-Anne November 2, 2013 at 7:52 am - Reply

    You’ve made me very curious to read this book! Thanks for the great review.

    Every summer we drive from Alberta to our cottage near Kingston crossing on the Chi-Cheemaun and visiting my Grandma in Owen Sound. Next year I’d like to make a stop at Ste. Marie-among-the-Hurons. Reading this book first would add to the experience I am sure.

    • Buried In Print November 7, 2013 at 9:01 am - Reply

      I hope you enjoy the book. And the site is really neat: I loved the tour (even without the candlelight), but even more so, just being able to wander the grounds. (The marsh/provincial park nearby is lovely for its boardwalks too.)

  6. Sandra October 30, 2013 at 8:34 am - Reply

    I’m definitely planning to read this book now and you’ve given me a very good reason: “restoring other voices to the process of remembering and rebuilding.” I really like the quote from the Daniel David Moses poem as well and will follow up on that.

    • Buried In Print October 30, 2013 at 10:46 am - Reply

      I had seen Daniel David Moses’ name around (he edited an anthology I’ve dabbled in reading), but I hadn’t followed up in detail. Listening to an interview with him on “The Next Chapter” brought him onto my reading list, and he’s not budging now. Great stuff. You’ll love it.

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