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.
“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.
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?
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 Grady, Annabel 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)