I wrote a blog post yesterday expressing my uneasiness with certain parts of The Orenda and my concern that readers unfamiliar with Aboriginal history might think it’s all true. And sure enough, a reviewer in the Montreal Gazette has called for The Orenda to become required reading in all university and school history classes. Which would be great, provided the people leading those discussions understand that the written history of what happened post-contact (particularly that outlined in the Jesuit Relations which Boyden relied on so heavily) is an incomplete and often culturally biased account.
So here’s a portion of what two indigenous book reviewers have to say about The Orenda: one is Iroquois; the other Anishnabe. I won’t reproduce either review in its entirety; they’re too long, but do click on the links. Both reviews are balanced, thoughtful, and reflective, and well worth reading for a slightly different perspective on this book than what you may have heard in the mass media.
First is a review by Hayden King in Muskrat Magazine. (You can read his entire review here.)
“Christophe the Crow [the Jesuit priest] … becomes the protagonist, the doomed hero that reinforces colonial myths of savagery on the one hand, and salvation, on the other – ‘survival in the face of hostile Natives.’ Hostile is an understatement. The vivid descriptions of torture are excessive. I haven’t read a book as violent since McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Interestingly that was also a story about colonization, the violence reflecting a lawless, incomplete social order but also a comment on the universality of violence among humans.
“This is a contrast to The Orenda, where violence and torture is both the exclusive domain of the Indians and endemic in their societies since time immemorial. The inevitable conclusion is that Indians were really just very violent. It’s not a surprising conclusion considering that Boyden seems to rely heavily on travelogues (journals of Jesuits) for his historical information. This despite the obvious bias stemming from the interest Jesuits had in perpetuating tales of savagery among the Indians – it justified their own existence, after all. So problematic are these accounts of sadism, they’ve long been excused by critical thinkers, many academics, and Indigenous peoples themselves. The Haudenosaunee have insisted that some of the practices depicted in the book ended hundreds of years earlier.
“There are other tropes throughout. There is mystical Indian, reflected in a ‘magical’ Anishinaabe sorceress and to a lesser extent Snow Falls. Both can (or have the potential) to see the future and heal in inexplicable ways. There is also the child-like Indian, Hurons who are awe-struck anytime the French introduce something foreign: a crystal chalice, muskets, a clock. Finally there is the noble Indian, reflected in Christophe’s frequent caveat in his musings on their heathenism (i.e. these Indians are child-like savages but, oh Lord, they are as beautiful and stoic as the most impressive Greek statues). All of this is not to say the characters are one-dimensional. They aren’t. Snow Falls, Bird and others are complex, coming from a community with well developed culture, economy, spirituality, relationships, and so on. Yet their component traits resemble outdated narratives of Native people, which have been used in the past to justify civilizing policies.
“The consequences of these themes – the marginalization of the perspective of the Haudenosaunee, the centering of the Jesuit point of view and the cultivation of old tropes, specifically the savage Indian – amount to a tale about the inevitability of colonization… It’s a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Orenda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi.”
The second review appears on An Onkwehonwe in Kanata, written by a Haudenosaunee blogger who loved Boyden’s earlier works but found herself disappointed by the way that the Iroquois are portrayed:
“For the first third, this book is a masterpiece. The narrative voice is strong, with evocative and poetic descriptions of our lands in the time before colonization really took hold, when this territory was truly our place. There’s enough detail about how the people lived and their traditions to satisfy my long-held fascination with the story of my relations. And at first blush, the character of the Haudenosaunee girl Snow Falls, who is taken captive by the Wendat warrior Bird, was dimensional to me because her feistiness and fierce spirit reminded me of my own daughter. Her resistance was very real, knowing what the character of most Haudenosaunee girls is like. I really enjoyed her struggle to understand and deal with her captivity and how she matured into a woman despite her circumstances.
“However, as I got more into the book, my inner alarm bells started to ring. Beneath the beautiful prose the conflict between the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee is not explained beyond what the colonial history tells us….My people are relegated to being the monsters of whom everyone is terrified, whom Bird’s war bearers constantly test their mettle against. My people, who are such eloquent defenders of the Great Peace and the authors of the Two Row Wampum, are the bogeyman in the night, a horror story told to children to make them behave. This does not compute and I reject this idea of us. It’s a colonial idea and not worthy of a writer like Boyden.
“There was also the idea that Snow Falls and the Anishnaabe woman Gosling were ‘magical.’ While I have no doubt that Haudenosaunee girls aged 3 to 10 are magical, and I do believe in the medicine ways of the Anishnaabe, I really dislike the idea of making women ‘magical.’ To do so negates their humanity, makes them viewed as mystical creatures that cannot possibly be real. In this colonial culture, does this not reinforce our already-nebulous status? I found myself cringing whenever anyone commented or felt that these characters’ strong powers of intuition and empathy were magical, and this served to pull me out of the book.
“Eventually, I got tired of the endless descriptions of torture and the thrilling canoe chases and siege tactics. It’s a boys’ adventure novel disguised in beautiful prose. I enjoyed the first third of the book much more than the last two-thirds. It is the set and setting of the stage that thrilled me and made me dream of the Old Days for three consecutive nights. I would fall asleep and have dreams of endless cornfields and the smoke of cooking fires and children’s laughter echoing through the trees. For this reason alone, I liked the beginning of the book. However, it is certainly not the novel I wanted to read when I first heard about it.”
The Orenda has been long-listed as one of the forty books on Canada Reads. Last year, one of the shortlisted books was Hugh Maclennan’s The Two Solitudes. I think there are two solitudes developing around this book, based on two very different perspectives. Wouldn’t Canada Reads be a great place to have this important discussion about our shared history?