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Words Plucked from Our Tongues

The Orenda

By Joseph Boyden
Knopf 2014

1Every once in a while a book gets published that changes the way people think. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Satanic Verses. Each of these books dramatized a key social or political concern of its times, and each generated intense controversy as well as acclaim. To many readers and critics, Joseph Boyden’s third novel The Orenda, which reimagines some of the earliest moments of first contact between Canada’s First Nations and settler-colonials, is another such cultural landmark. It has been both described as a means of healing Canada’s colonial relationship with its First Nations and decried as sensationally violent. Yet, while it is undeniably a compelling and important novel, The Orenda buckles under the political burden that has been placed upon it. And why shouldn’t it? No single novel can — or should — be tasked with such a project of reconciliation.

Boyden has explained that The Orenda, set in the early days of first contact, is a departure from the incomplete trilogy made up of his earlier novels Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. Three Day Road takes ranges between the Moosonee area of Ontario and the trenches of the First World War, while Through Black Spruce is set in the later twentieth century and moves from Moosonee to New York. Both of these novels have a two-voiced structure and both use the figure of the windigo — a mythical creature specific to the Algonquin peoples of eastern Canada and the United states — as a device for navigating the twentieth century from an Indigenous perspective. A spirit associated with the taboo of cannibalism, the windigo comes to stand in more generally for forms of psychosis associated with cultural trauma. In Three Day Road trench warfare is aligned with windigo psychosis while in Through Black Spruce it is drug and alcohol addiction that takes on the windigo’s soul-devouring characteristics. Boyden uses the figure of the windigo to show his readers iconic historical moments through the frame of Indigenous culture, but by using a figure that is specific to a particular region and peoples he avoids lumping all Indigenous peoples into a single group.

Though The Orenda is not the third book in Boyden’s trilogy (this as-yet-unwritten novel will, he has said, take place during WWII), it is also not a total departure from the earlier books: the Bird family, for instance, whose story they tell, remain central figures in The Orenda, 2and The Orenda reflects the same commitment to historical and cultural specificity. But the novel’s opening, which appears at first to be a preface, signals a subtle but important change in Boyden’s approach. An omniscient voice introduces the orenda, the force that binds the world together:

We had magic before the crows came. Before the rise of the great villages they so roughly carved on the shores of our inland sea and named with words plucked from our tongues — Chicago, Toronto, Milwaukee, Ottawa — we had our own great villages on these same shores. And we understood our magic. We understood what the orenda implied.

Both Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce use two narrators whose interlocking voices fill in the gaps in the other’s knowledge so that understanding, if not acceptance, is finally possible. The Orenda too uses multiple named narrators, but this unattributed narrative voice that introduces the novel undermines the Indigenous characters and frames colonization as an inevitability. “Once those crows flew over the great water from their old world to perch tired and frightened in the branches of ours, they saw we had the orenda,” says the voice,

And when they cawed that our magic was unclean, we laughed, took a little offence, even killed a few of them and pulled out their feathers for our hair. We lived on. But that word, unclean, somehow, like an illness, like its own magic, it began to grow. Very few of us saw that coming. So maybe this is the story of those few.

Within a few short paragraphs the novel makes its audience clear: this is a story about Indigenous peoples, but for that broader category of (implicitly non-Indigenous) Canadians.

3The story of The Orenda begins with the kidnapping of Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee woman. Snow Falls’ family has just been massacred by a Wendat hunting party led by Bird, a warrior who lost his own wife and daughters to the Haudenosaunee years before — while the specter of colonial atrocities is never wholly absent in The Orenda, the majority of the novel’s violence is enacted by one Indigenous group against another, another significant difference between this and Boyden’s earlier novels. The Wendat and the Haudenosaunee were both Iroquois-language speakers, and both groups farmed and lived in longhouses. The similarities between these historic enemies are commented upon by all the narrators throughout the novel, including Christophe, a recently arrived Jesuit missionary, who (rather than Snow Falls or Bird) is the first named voice the reader encounters. It is through Christophe’s imperfect understanding of the Huron language that the reader is first oriented in the landscape of Wendaki, or present-day central Ontario. (Christophe’s character is almost certainly based on Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary who worked amongst the Huron until his death in 1649, and whose death has been the subject of a variety of twentieth-century texts, from E. J. Pratt’s poetic epic Brebeuf and his Brethren to Aboriginal playwright Daniel David Moses’s Brebeuf’s Ghost.)

Boyden’s narrative oscillates throughout between these three perspectives — the warrior, the young woman, and the missionary — mirroring the struggles for power, both military and spiritual, that drive the story. Many critics have lauded this narrative device as a means for Boyden to avoid cultural biases. However, as critic Hayden King notes, Boyden’s main characters conform to familiar tropes: the savage yet noble warrior, the beautiful and defiant young woman, the well-intentioned yet misguided priest. Boyden’s strategy thus does not manage to fully subvert familiar narratives that would depict of the emergence of Canada as a struggle between the Indigenous past and the colonial future.

A fourth voice subtly dominates the novel through both its presence and its absence: that of the orenda itself. The orenda flows between the people and the land, and it is the orenda that recedes and shifts when the European invaders arrive. “It is tempting to place blame” when the orenda recedes, observes the nameless omniscient narrator, “though loss should never be weighed in this manner.” The omniscient narrator recasts the events of the novel as being beyond the purview of human action, even, in some ways, predetermined — a sense of inevitability that also finds its way into Bird’s perspective. Shortly after returning to his village with Snow Falls and Christophe, or the Crow, as the Wendat call him, Bird begins to worry about his decision to take the Crow captive. When he expresses his worries to his lover Gosling, an Anishnaabe healer, she tells him that it is already too late: “‘We need to keep the Crow, unfortunately,’ Gosling says. ‘Keeping him here is good for relations with the foreign ones.’” Even at this early point in the novel the necessity of these relations is already established, inevitable, and tinged with foreboding: “She’s left the obvious unspoken. It’s what the crows bring with them that our people haven’t yet seen that Gosling is asking me to consider.”

Jean de Brebeuf

Jean de Brebeuf

The story unfolds from the day following the slaughter of Snow Falls’ family and her capture by Bird. While Snow Falls reaches back to the memory of her parents for strength, readers come to know her as she navigates childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Though her devastation over her family’s deaths never disappears, it does shift over time. Her resistance to her new home and to Bird, her adoptive father, are initially fierce. “I turn my back on these people,” she resolves. “I will not let them change me. I won’t let him become my father.” Yet, as time progresses, Snow Falls comes to grudgingly appreciate her new life. “I can accept him as a substitute,” she thinks, speaking to her dead parents, “but this doesn’t mean I won’t one day end his life, as he did yours.” Snow Falls’ struggle to make a place for herself in the present while protecting her memories of the past are instructive. Through her own attempts to resist and then, eventually, reconcile her Haudenosaunee culture with that of the Wendat she may perform the kind of reconciliation critics have looked for in the novel. Snow Falls’s eventual integration into the Wendat community comes through hard work from both sides. She and Bird constantly fight one another despite their growing respect, and it isn’t until a botched attempt to maim Bird results in twinned injuries that Snow Falls realizes that not all wounds are healed equally.

Bird and Christophe, though not quite foils for one another, do offer parallel narratives that illuminate each other through their connections and contrasts. While Christophe directs his recollections, detailed observations of Wendat culture, his hopes, and fears toward either his Superior in France or, often, to God, Bird is consistently speaking to his wife. While Christophe’s narrative is textual, partial, and public — he writes in his journal and pens his observations in letters — Bird’s narratives are almost entirely interior and oriented toward his most personal relations. Again, this narrative choice is subtle and significant: the reader learns detailed information about some of the most sacred ceremonies from Christophe’s perspective. For example, in his letter describing the Kettle, a days-long ceremony honoring the village’s dead, Christophe observes that the Huron have much to teach Christians about honor, love, and mortification. “I share this with you, my dear Superior,” he writes, “and with any other readers my journals might find back in France, the most splendid thing I’ve yet to see in this heathen land.” It is through the priest’s letter that the reader learns that when a Huron community relocates it does so to give the fields time to rest and replenish. The community moves in its entirety, taking not only their possessions, but also their dead loved ones. The description of the care with which each family cleans, honors, and pays respect to their dead is one of the most beautiful sections in the novel:

While the moving of a community of two thousand or more souls is nothing short of a feat to witness, it’s the community’s ceremony, its reverence for its dead, that truly astound me…. Once the bodies are unearthed, they are put on display so that all the family members might grieve anew, and it’s this that strikes me as especially powerful, this willingness of the sauvages to gaze down upon what they will each one day become. There’s something in this particular practice that can teach us Christians a powerful lesson, that we may see more vividly our own wretched moral state, that it’s not this world we should cherish but the promise of the next.

This is one of several scenes in the novel that emphasize Christophe’s respect for the cultural practices of “his sauvages” despite his mission of conversion. The chapter following Christophe’s letter is from Bird’s perspective. It is much shorter and directed to his wife and daughters. Bird tells his family of the years he’s waited to hold them again, narrates his path to the new communal grave making certain to stop by his wife’s favorite sites, and sings to them of his longing to be together. While the two perspectives offer depth to the Kettle, allocating the detailed information to Christophe subtly reinforces cultural stereotypes, allowing him to take on the role of the white expert who translates the customs of the Wendat for white outsiders – figures with whom the reader seems to be aligned. Bird’s description of the same events focuses instead on the intensity of his feelings, depicting a world in which kinship is the central value.

5Part epic romance, part apologia for colonial hegemony in Canada, The Orenda sets itself an immense task: to reconcile the people, the histories, and the land. The possibility of future reconciliation is intertwined with the deferral of past responsibility; by refusing to place blame and instead representing individual characters’ decisions as part of a larger tapestry of loss and potential rebirth, The Orenda becomes a particularly conciliatory novel. It came as little surprise, then, when it was selected as part of this year’s CBC Canada Reads competition under the theme “One Novel to Change Our Nation.” Implicit in the debate around the novel was its responsibility to speak not (only) to Indigenous readers but to a mainstream readership glossed simply as “Canadians.” Thus when well-known humanitarian Stephen Lewis (defending Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood), in conversation with Indigenous activist Wab Kinew (defending The Orenda), argued that Boyden’s novel could not “rally Canada to Aboriginal issues” because “the torture was so extreme and so continuous” that it would unnerve readers, the subtext was clear: literature’s responsibility is to educate and affect its settler readership, making Indigenous politics moving and comprehensible rather than disturbing or alienating. From this perspective, the conciliatory framing of the novel is undermined by the recurring scenes of violence, particularly ritualized torture, that appear throughout.

The prominence and complexity of these scenes point toward the complexity of the novel, rendering it more than the sum of its public expectations. Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe are characters whose interior lives reveal the inarticulable human struggles of being in the world. Yet, despite the author’s own claim to have written a novel about first contact that avoids stereotyping and dichotomies, the narrative is still predicated on a division between us and them, between self and other, between civilization and savagery. This “clash of civilizations” model is perhaps most clearly established in the scenes that describe from multiple perspectives Wendat ceremonies and customs in which violence features prominently. Both the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee engage in days-long torture of enemy captives, and in The Orenda both tribes name the torture “caressing.” A captive’s ability to withstand torture and to sing his death song is a sign of strength. The reader learns about mutual respect of the enemy tribes from Bird, who observes

My prisoners have been taking turns singing their heart songs. Two of them I find very good, full of images of their lives, songs of their families and their women and their accomplishments and their hopes for where they’re now heading. These two men are older, one nearly my age, and their voices are strong despite what they know comes, and they sing up into the sky with cries that are as pretty as any bird’s. We’ve found our drumbeat, our prisoners and us, and any canoes within earshot paddle to the rhythm of their voices.

It’s no surprise that the one whose song is weakest is also the youngest. The other two have been urging him to show resolve. He’s not much older than a boy, though, and so doesn’t have the experience yet to sing from his heart.

Returning home with Haudenosaunee captives, Bird takes on the role of a mentor to the youngest warrior, describing the upcoming ceremony to the young man and wishing him strength: “That’s the spirit, young one! The heat of anger, I hope you soon learn, diminishes all the other hurts.” The events that follow appear valuable and necessary from Bird’s perspective. Community members are invited to take part in the caressing as a necessary process of mourning the death of their own loved ones at the hands of the Haudenosaunee. One Wendat woman stitches up a Haudenosaunee whose stomach has been punctured by a burning stick. “You are responsible for killing my favoured child,” she says as she sews his wound, “I don’t want you to bleed to death just yet.” Christophe, however, sees the caressing as horrific, describing Bird as “as much a wild animal as he is a man,” emphasizing the ferocity and violence of the “seething crowd” that greets the prisoners, and marveling:

These are a ragged and brutal group, and I’m deeply confused how they at one moment can treat each other so gently and with unconditional love and then the next torture their enemy so horrifically.

In an exchange with Bird Christophe uses Christian moralizing in an attempt to end the caressing before it begins.

“What you plan to do is simple and utter brutality,” I say. “And yes, my people practice their own form of it too, but that makes none of it right.”

“You cannot change what will soon happen,” Bird says. “We are at war. And what my people will go through tonight is mourning warfare. It isn’t your place to try and change it.”

With that, Bird turns and walks into his longhouse.

The language of animality and savagery, paired with Christophe’s genuine confusion, creates a binary that pits Indigenous and settler cultures against each other, while putting readers squarely on Christophe’s side.

6Even while the violence of the torture scenes might unsettle readers, it is presented through the lens of what scholar Janice Radway has called “personalism,” a worldview in which individuals, no matter how different, are ultimately recognizable, readable, and worthy of compassion. With its emphasis on identification with individuals, personalism tends to shy away from issues of systemic violence and the social movements that oppose them. If Christophe offers an expert viewpoint from which non-Indigenous readers can better understand the strange world he is navigating, Bird and Snow Falls give the abstractions of colonialism emotional resonance. Readers can come to care for individuals personally affected by vast historical forces without necessarily being prompted to reflect critically on colonialism’s legacy in the present – or on their own complicity.

This is a feature of the novel that Wab Kinew’s articulate defense did not take into account. He argued that the violence is key because it challenges Canadian readers by presenting an image of Indigenous culture that cannot be easily assimilated to Western values. This approach is necessary, he concluded, because “reconciliation is the greatest social justice issue facing this nation, but reconciliation must not be a second chance at assimilation.” The novel’s ability to maintain the perspectives of three radically different characters is an example of reconciliation without assimilation – different worldviews living together without any one being given priority. These different perspectives challenge a troubling idea at the root of reconciliation: that there is one right way of being, one version of the good life. The Orenda values the irreconcilability of Christophe, Bird, and Snowfall’s understandings and desires. But when this irreconcilability is combined with the seeming inevitability of colonialism, the “clash of civilizations” model rears its head, suggesting once again an us-them dichotomy that cannot be overcome except at the level of individual relationships. That same personalism that lets The Orenda’s three protagonists serve as models of reconciliation may also point to the novel’s shortcomings.

Ultimately, The Orenda might be best read as a failure of translation. In addition to Kinew’s articulate and critical defense of the novel on CBC’s Canada Reads, the blurbs on the cover betray the burden placed on Boyden’s text. “Boyden has taken our memory of the past — myth and fact — and ripped it inside out with elegance, violence, emotion, and understanding,” writes John Raulston Saul, a prominent Canadian public intellectual, “until before us stands a new myth, a new memory of how we became who we are.” Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research in Motion (the company that created the BlackBerry smartphone), is pithier: “an important and engrossing novel,” he writes. These blurbs have much to tell us about the excessive burden placed on this novel. Take Saul’s use of “our” and “us” alongside Kinew’s criticism of the average non-Indigenous Canadian and we see the ways in which translation has failed. Saul’s elision of cultural difference and memory undermines Kinew’s reading of the text as an unsettling force. Instead of reconciliation there is again a kind of assimilation. Pair this elision of asymmetrical power — between settler-colonials and Indigenous peoples — with an empty statement from a CEO and the frame for reading the text is clear. This is a book that has been tasked to do the work that the Canadian government to this point has not. What book — even a well-written and innovative one like The Orenda — can be held to that task, and why do we demand more of our literature than we do of our leaders?

Erin Wunker teaches and researches in the fields of contemporary Canadian poetry and literature. She is Chair of the Board of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (www.cwila.com) and co-founder of the feminist academic blog Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe (www.hookandeye.ca).

Hannah McGregor is a postdoctoral fellow in English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, where her research focuses on the early twentieth century magazine The Western Home Monthly. Her work has been published in English Studies in CanadaUniversity of Toronto QuarterlyCanadian Literature, and the International Journal of Canadian Studies.