Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Book Review: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

I've been thinking what I should do for my first proper post here. I want it to be something that is relevant to both my interest in Canadiana and in history: something that could really show what this blog is going to be about.

Given that, I start with a Canadian historical fiction novel that was recently recommended to me by friends and colleagues: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden.

Dubbed the winner of Canada Reads 2014, The Orenda is one of those texts that has suddenly taken off as a piece of modern Canadian literature after it was published in 2013 by Joseph Boyden, an author of mixed First Nations, Irish, and Scottish descent. Perhaps, then, that it is fitting that he had chosen to write about a time of interaction and engagement between First Nations and European groups in Canada's early history.

As a whole, The Orenda is set within the area near Georgian Bay in Ontario - called Huronia by historians - during the 17th century. The focus is on three distinctive characters and their stories: Bird, a Wendat (i.e. Huron) elder and warrior; Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee (i.e. Iroquois) girl whom Bird abducts and then raises as his own daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary sent to convert the Huron to Christianity.

By examining the events from three different angles, Boyden is able to touch upon the complex issues surrounding French and First Nations relationships in the mid-17th century. Perhaps the narrative that would be the most immediately familiar to the audience would be Christophe's. Sounding like something straight out of the Jesuit Relations, we see in him both an aversion to the Wendat's customs and beliefs, and a growing sense of pity that further drives him towards fulfilling his vocation however possible. In contrast, Bird represents the existent Wendat system of beliefs: much of his narrative focuses on his meditations to his wife, deceased before the book's beginning, as he seeks to come to terms with the hardships faced by his village after the arrival of the Jesuits. Finally, Snow Falls lies somewhere in the middle. From her, we see something of a third party's perspective at first, when she still regards Bird as an enemy; yet, as the novel progresses, she comes more and more to integrate with the Wendat and consider herself one of their number. Against all this is the shadow that is cast by the Haudenosaunee throughout the text. Enemies of both the Wendat and their French "allies", there is a constant threat of violence that finally boils over in the book's concluding chapters.

Boyden has been criticized for his portrayal of the Haudenosaunee as brutally violent: torturing their war captives in increasingly sadistic ways. However, I do not consider that to be his fault alone. Much of the documented evidence we have from this time period comes from the Jesuit Relations: letters sent from missionaries back to France that are known to have grossly exaggerated their portrayals of Haudenosaunee atrocities in order to both prompt public support for Christianizing the Wendat and to give the Jesuits a sense of valorization in their martyrdom. Yes, the accounts were biased and painted the Haudenosaunee in an incredibly negative light; there is no denying that. Yet, because Boyden chose to tell the story from Wendat and French perspectives, how else would their enemies have been described in their own words? The only real remedy for that I could foresee would be if Boyden had also included a fourth voice: an individual from a Haudenosaunee community that stays Haudenosaunee throughout.

Boyden gives us many rich descriptions of Wendat customs: their feasts, their attitudes towards the dead, their agricultural cycle, their religious beliefs, etc. It is, for me, approaching a depth that I have rarely found in other novels I have read. In addition, the broader cast of characters allows for multiple perspectives to be given within any one group. Christophe's two colleagues, Gabriel and Isaac, for example, have very different approaches and attitude from him towards their mission - and for Isaac in particular, this ultimately leads to tragedy. For the First Nations, we also are granted a strongly traditionalist point of view in Gosling, an Anishnaabe who had become accepted by the Wendat as a medicine woman, and who serves as the primary voice of opposition to the Jesuits. In her, we see a strong voice that counters any preconceived notion that the First Nations were simplistic or primitive in their beliefs: Gosling holds her own against even Christophe, and often bests him in debate.

However, as someone who went into The Orenda with a curiosity as to how Canada's early history would be depicted, I found myself both satiated, yet wanting more. My greatest complaint here is in the scope of the novel. Ostensibly, The Orenda takes place between 1640 and 1650, during the height and the collapse of the Jesuit mission to the Huron. Yet outside of this vague description, the narrative feels strangely compressed. The story is described as taking place over a period of several years, but the historical events described, in fact, span from 1635 to 1649. In the beginning of the novel, there is a depiction of Samuel de Champlain at the end of his life (he died in 1635), and the conclusion reads like the final spike in violence from the Haudenosaunee against the Wendat and French described in 1648-1649. Hardly several years, that - and for someone with some knowledge of the historical background, the seeming compression of the story was quite frustrating to read.

Finally, though, what can be said about criticisms of The Orenda as a colonialist narrative? I do not know if that was Boyden's intention; his tripartite narration does suggest that he was aiming for a greater degree of complexity than if he had predominantly offered the French or Jesuit perspective as some of his predecessors (like Brian Moore in the 1985 novel Black Robe). Yet it is still the Wendat and the French that we, as the audience, are meant to sympathize with: the tragedy of the Wendat who were inadvertently decimated by European diseases (smallpox and influenza are specifically mentioned here) and then crushed by a Haudenosaunee fight against the French; and the Jesuit martyrs that formed the basis for the Catholic Church in French Canadian history for centuries to come and who could arguably be a precursor for the clergymen who ran the Indian residential school centuries later.

The Orenda is a broadening of the official narrative that Canadian schoolchildren grow up with, but it does not challenge it, nor go so far as to offer an alternative perspective. Perhaps, someday, a new novel could come along and allow the voice of the Haudenosaunee to be heard as well.


Boyden, Joseph. The Orenda. Toronto: Penguin, 2013. Print.

King, Hayden. "The Orenda faces tough criticism from First Nations scholar". CBC News., 7 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 May 2014.

Image Credits

Cover image for The Orenda (c) Penguin Canada Books Inc.


  1. Congratulations on your new blog K! I'm excited :D Was it difficult to set up? I must get off my behind now and make my own, however, I have trouble picking a focus (hence why I've still not picked my time period on Historical Me lol). I guess I can just travel through time... This looks an interesting book. I'm quite interested in your opinion of Boyden's portrayal of the Haudenosaunee. As you know this is not an area I am well versed in, but am not surprised at colonial slants on the culture of indigenous populations. I assume that violent acts on the part of the Haudenosaunee was only one aspect of their culture do you know any other details? I think if as you say, Boyden drew mostly on Jesuit sources, this is a bit of a failing. We all know history is written by the victors and I've never found the Jesuits to be particularly appealing at any stage or in any country! If this is the case, I think it does undermine his attempt to present this period from three different perspectives, including the First Nations peoples. Clearly as you say this is not just his portrayal, but I would hope there is some way to move beyond this... especially when it (should) be obvious how biased the extant accounts are.

    1. Thanks! Looking at Boyden's acknowledgements at the back of the book, he didn't explicitly mentioned that he relied upon the Jesuit Relations for this. However, he credits a good deal of secondary sources - and I can't vouch on whether THEY were primarily based upon the Relations ;)

      Culturally speaking, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat were quite similar. They were both, as its sometimes called by scholars, "People of the Longhouse": agricultural in their lifestyle - unlike the surrounding hunter-gatherer First Nations - and living in settlements of near-identical construction. In fact, I've come across a review of The Orenda that asserts that, by rights, the Wendat were also Haudenosaunee insofar as they are also considered an Iroquoian people. However, the distinction that Boyden set up refers more to historical politics than culture. The term "Haudenosaunee" refers to the First Nations tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederacy; the Wendat, while similar to them in culture, were outside of the Confederacy, and were instead allied with the Algonquian peoples (ex. Anishnaabe, Montaignais, Algonquin, etc.) in a trade and military alliance against the Haudenosaunee. This latter group was what the French was interested in trading with, while the Haudenosaunee worked more with the Dutch and then the British.

      Finally, re: blog-making. It's not that hard. I'm using Blogger right now, so if you went there, it's pretty easy to set up an account. I think you may have to be on Google+, but if you're wanting to use a nom de plume, you can always adjust things so your username on Blogger and Google+ are different.

  2. I found a documentary on YouTube called "The French Indian Wars" that I will watch in the next couple of days to give me some better background.

    This alliance situation definitely explains how similar peoples can be represented so differently... but it is HARDLY news to me how political in nature history is!

    I am on Google+ as Win. They shut down my profile the first time (it took them awhile) as I expect they realised I was not born in 1874, was not a former First Lord of the Admiralty and 10 Downing Street was not my actual residence. Now, I just use the name and a real birthdate and my country. That's it. Nice try Google! I don't actually use the social network side of it. I've not bothered to work it out as yet.

    1. Okay, but just so you know: the French-Indian War (singular, as opposed to plural) is what the North American theatre of the Seven Years War is called in the States. So that might actually be what the documentary is referring to ;)

    2. Which pages shows Christophe reinforces negative stereotypes by translating the customs of the Wendat for white outsiders to lead them to Christ.

    3. Which pages shows Christophe reinforces negative stereotypes by translating the customs of the Wendat for white outsiders to lead them to Christ.

    4. Sorry, Chengkai, I'm not sure I entirely understand your question. It's been a long time since I read this book (more than two years), so I cannot recall off the top of my head whether Christophe directly conveyed anything about the Wendat to Europeans, let alone any specific examples or page references.