An Alternative Reading of The Orenda

  • The Orenda

    Jospeh Boyden

    Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2013

Amidst much Criticism and controversy, Joseph Boyden’s newest novel, The Orenda, was recently crowned winner of the 2014 Canada Reads competition. Boyden’s book, which explores French colonialism and its role in the collapse of the Wendat confederacy in the 17th century, beat out other excellent works of fiction. However, despite winning the prize, The Orenda has received a rocky reception and continues to be the subject of significant popular debate.

On the one hand, Ryerson university professor Hayden King has put forward a scathing critique of Boyden’s book, challenging its representations of Haudenosaunee peoples and what he feels is a privileging of Jesuit perspectives. King argues that the book offers a comforting narrative for Canadians tantamount to a “timeless, classic colonialist alibi.” On the other hand, journalist Wab Kinew has defended The Orenda, arguing that it is a masterful treatise promoting reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Though King and Kinew both make important points, the debate as to whether The Orenda is a colonialist alibi or a reconciliation manifesto oversimplifies what is in reality a more complicated historical novel. In providing an alternative reading of the book, i suggest The Orenda offers an important account of the complexities of colonialism.

By conveying the story of the collapse of the Wendat confederacy through the overlapping, yet differing, viewpoints of three main characters, The Orenda complicates our understanding of the colonial past. The book begins with a Wendat warrior named Bird mounting a retaliatory campaign on the Haudenosaunee in which he captures and brings back to his community the two other main characters: Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl, and Christophe “the Crow,” a Jesuit missionary.

The rest of the book traces the complicated transformations put in motion by the addition of these new members. As each character develops, so does the complexity of the situation. in alternating chapters, the reader learns that Snow Falls is highly critical of Wendat ways of life, as is Christophe, but for very different reasons; Bird’s own observations on these two characters and the changes occurring in his community only add further nuance. This unique narrative device allows Boyden to tell the story from three separate perspectives that, considered together, challenge each other and thus add layers of complexity.

Boyden’s decision to alternate perspectives encourages readers to question the characters’ motivations. While some critics argue that The Orenda privileges the views of Jesuits like Christophe, I suggest that Bird and Snow Fall’s observations of the “Crows” provide differing indigenous stand-points and serve to counterbal- ance and critique the French missionaries. For example, this is evident in the scene where Bird and Christophe share a meal with Samuel de Champlain in New France. Address ing Christophe, Champlain says, “For the French to crack this great continent and all of its wealth—and I include the wealth of souls, Father—we must crack the Huron Confederacy. They are the ones, clearly, who control the trade in this savage land. And so we must control them” (127). While Christophe is excited at this opportunity, Bird offers an alternative understanding of the meeting with Champlain: “The world tonight, it has changed forever” (129). This complex scene frames the rest of Christophe’s actions, and the novel generally, in the context of colonial destruction.

Like all good historical fiction, The Orenda challenges our perspectives on the past, present and future. And while the book has been lauded and lambasted, I believe there is still much to be learned in its pages about indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives and the complexities of colonialism. Ultimately, though, readers must make up their own minds about The Orenda.