Reading The Orenda isn't for the faint of heart. All of Joseph Boyden's books have illuminated difficult subjects and terrible experiences. His newest novel is difficult, indeed.
The Orenda takes place near Lake Huron in the 1600's. Boyden opens the story after a battle between the Huron and the Iroquois. Bird, the Huron leader, has killed a young girl's parents and brother in battle but has taken her captive. The party is on the run now for the Iroquois will take revenge if they can and it is imperative the Huron return to their own territory.
Christophe (or Crow as the Huron call him because of his black robes) is the Jesuit priest they have brought with them from Kebec. His observations give an insight into how foreign the Huron culture is to the even though they are allies.
Bird is a leader of the Bear people and as he tells his story, we see how the Huron are led to war, how they treasure family and how cooperation allows them all to survive the harsh winters. He adopts Snow Falls, his Iroquois captive, for he is alone and his wife and children were murdered by Iroquois.
Snow Falls hates Bird and the Huron. She looks for ways to die so she can join her family and she gains Bird's respect and admiration when she uses a sharp clam shell to cut off his finger as he sleeps. The shell slips and she loses her own finger as well. This is the beginning of a bond.
These three main characters narrate The Orenda. Nothing is glossed or prettified. The horrific tortures perpetrated by the Inquisition and the Huron and Iroquois are described in detail. The hardships of the climate, devastations of native populations by European diseases, the violence of the wars are all there. The story has no "right" side. Both the Jesuit priests' and the natives' views (as depicted by Bird and Snow Falls) show how complicated the lives were these people led. Myth and legend and spirituality are intertwined.
The Orenda is a complex, moving book. The torture scenes are hard to read and Boyden cried as he wrote them. The family life of the Huron is wonderful. Children are revered. Men love their wives and there are happy, carefree times. The changes brought by the fur trade influence the lives of everyone. The Orenda explores a time of great change and discovery, showing that Canada's early history is steeped in blood, war and upheaval.
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