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Joseph Boyden: The Orenda (One World)

'Living history" is a term more usually applied to theatrical recreations for tourists in historic buildings, but let us appropriate it for this third novel by Joseph Boyden, already much praised in his native Canada.

Technically, these 480 pages are something of a tour-de-force. Boyden has three first-person narrators: a native American warrior, Bird, of the Huron tribe, who becomes the leader of his people; and a young woman, Snow Falls, of the Iroquois enemy whom he adopts after he has killed her family in a revenge attack. Then there is Christophe, a Jesuit missionary who has come from Brittany to bring Christianity to the New World "sauvages".

From the opening pages, these three voices interweave in the present tense, the reader's only clue to their identity being the tone and perspective on the story. What seems at first a bold stroke quickly becomes entirely natural; Boyden's skill in never allowing the point of view of one of his protaganists to become more seductive than the others is remarkable.

We reach the bloody conclusion to an all-too-believable tale of 17th-century Canada still anxious about the fate of each of them, if appalled at the barbarity of their suffering. By that stage, the compositional device that Boyden has adopted is entirely in the service of his storytelling. A wealth of research also lies behind the novel, but that too is worn lightly. Boyden is certainly, but not solely, interested in the human experiences that lay behind the rivalries between the native tribes and how that balance was disrupted by the arrival of the French and (unseen) English.

Boyden has immersed himself in the spiritual beliefs of the native people (from which his novel's title is derived) and pits that faith against the evangelical Christian zeal of the invading forces. He is also authoritative on the oral history and social practices of the indigenous people, and uses what are surely real surviving accounts sent back to Europe from priests in the front line, who may indeed have suspected they were being used as patsies by ambitious capitalists and the military machine.

Or may not, I suppose, because it is equally obvious that we are meant to see some contemporary lessons in his careful accounts of respect for the environment and ancestor-worship, as well as acquiring a recognition that we are comparatively well-off in our cosy 21st century world. This is not a novel for the squeamish. The injuries inflicted by weaponry on the cusp of moving from blade and club to gunpowder and musket is nothing by comparison to that meted out to prisoners tortured over days but denied the release of death.

Again, it is transparent that Boyden has done his historical homework, but equally the reader does not have to look far in the news headlines to find stories of blood-lust that seem frighteningly similar.

The author is too good, however, to make that anything but a subtext that may suit the perception of the reader, just as the accounts of episodes in different voices and the letters home from the Jesuits might be taken as illustrative debate on the art of novel-writing. Those layers are there to be savoured, but they are likely - at first reading anyway - to be secondary to the pursuit of a captivating plot.

While it has already caused something of a stir in Canada, international success for The Orenda might particularly fuel debate there that some would rather not address - because the novel documents, entirely convincingly, a very brutal period in the country's history; one that shaped the way the nation is now, but which many people there would probably prefer not to acknowledge. Christophe, the Jesuit, is modelled on Jean de Brebeuf, a Catholic "martyr" whose name is still celebrated in the landscape of suburbs in Ontario.

What Boyden's novel dares to do is to place his well-documented horrific end in the context of a bloody mess for which he and his kind were far from blameless, and in which such a death was somewhat less than unique. On reflection, if this is living history, it is very morbidly so.

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