Boyden hauntingly explores body

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October 31, 2013

The Orenda

By Joseph Boyden

Hamish Hamilton

496 pages, $32

By Diana Davidson

Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is a novel about: the birth of Canada as a nation, the complex hierarchies and trade arrangements that defined Huron and Iroquois Nations at the time of first European contact, the devastating hubris of colonial enterprise.  It’s also a story about people’s capacity for resilience, revenge, and grace in moments of extraordinary loss.

For me, The Orenda is a book about the body.  I am haunted by Boyden’s exploration of the corporeal in his third novel.  Maybe this is a sign of the skilled job Boyden does at creating flesh-and-blood characters on the page.  Maybe this shows how well Boyden recreates the harshness of survival in seventeeth-century ‘Canada.’  As with other great contemporary novels about colonial histories (Beloved, Book of Negroes, Kiss of the Fur Queen), bodies in The Orenda are always both personal and political. 

The most intimate and central relationship of the novel – between a Huron leader and the young Iroquois girl who becomes his daughter – begins when Bird kidnaps Snow Falls after killing her family in a retaliation raid and drags her back to his Wendat village along with the Jesuit Priest Christophe.  Snow Falls tries to resist her captivity with the only means at her disposal – her own body – by starving herself, pissing in Bird’s bed, sleeping.  Later in the story her pregnant body holds the tenuous potential for the community’s renewal after epidemics and conflict bring devastation.

            The Orenda has many brutal scenes.  I disagree, however, with Hayden King’s criticism that “the inevitable conclusion is that Indians were really just very violent” (in Muskrat Magazine).  Boyden is careful to show us, through the French Priest Christophe’s reaction to the torture the Huron inflict upon the Iroquois, that these rituals do not indicate “savageness” but rather civilization.  The French Priest sees the complicated performance of torture as proof that the people he futilely tries to convert are more similar to the people of his homeland (who burn witches and heretics at the stake) and to the great inquisitors of Spain than he had realized.  Brutality becomes a universal human trait.

What is perhaps most compelling about bodies in The Orenda is that this is also a very spiritual text.  The title itself is the Huron word signifying that all things have an essence (which translates most closely into “spirit”).  The corporeal and spiritual are intertwined for Bird, Snow Falls, and their community in a way that Christophe (and later his flock of Jesuits) try to deny and separate. We see this connection in the medicine woman Gosling’s ability to heal by knowing the natural world (herbs) and the spiritual (rituals that draw out illness).  We see this disconnect in Christophe’s resignation to starvation and torture, his focus on the afterlife, and even his celibacy that the Wendat women find ludicrous.

This tension between the physical and spiritual ultimately ensures that Boyden’s characters are complex people who we can love, hate, mourn, and, perhaps forgive.  In light of the irreconcilably violent history of our country, this potential of forgiveness as a very human quality rather than a supernatural one is, in my opinion, The Orenda’s greatest achievement of many.

Diana Davidson’s debut novel Pilgrimage is about women and men on the Lac St. Anne Settlement at the turn of the twentieth century.  On November 19 at 7 p.m., she will be in Victoria, speaking with local writer Pauline Holdstock, at Russell Books.


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