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The Orenda

“What happened in the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason that the future is always just a breath away. Now is what’s important, Aataentsic says. Orenda can’t be lost, just misplaced. The past and the future are present.” 
Recently chosen as CBC’s #CanadaReads2014 contender, The Orenda touches upon our complicated understanding of history – one that highly esteems native culture while juxtaposing it against the survival instincts and sometimes violent tactics they had to employ while dealing with daily challenges of life in the forest (including the arrival of the foreign man). 

The story that focuses primarily on three main characters: Christophe (The Crow) a Francophone Jesuit missionary; Bird, the leader and warrior of the Wendats (Huron) community; and Snow Falls, a young Iroquois teen born Haudenosaunee, but captured by the Wendats during a raid. This trinity of viewpoints juxtaposes against a trinity of moral relativism, moral ambiguity and the line blurring between some consider acts of moral righteousness and others acts of immoral savagery.

What is beautiful is the new relationships the characters form from tragedies in their own lives. Even though Bird mourns the death of his family at the hands of the Iroquois, he adopts Snow Falls as his own daughter and to the end is devoted. Even a few chopped fingers doesn’t deter him from his love for his daughter. Meanwhile, the Crow delicately manages to gain the respect of the community, allowing him to lay the foundation to achieve his overall mission.

Anyone who was part of the studio audience at #CanadaReads2013 was privy to the headed debates and suffocating tension that ensued with the discussion of The Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese. Passions ran high, as Jian Ghomeshi tried to keep the panel at bay. While most of the panellists – Carol Huynh, Jay Baruchel, and Trent McLellan --  felt that the story of native oppression needed to be told, Ron MacLean and Charlotte Gray took umbrage at the narrative and argued vociferously that this chapter should be closed and we, collectively as Canadians,  needed to move on.
Personally, the thinking that certain aspects of history should be curbed and we should study only the cleansed version of what is taught in textbooks, seems like an atrocious tragedy. But perhaps when aforementioned dissenting panellists read The Orenda, they will see a more balanced historical account, one that attempts at the truth in a non-accusatory manner. We shall see next year when the book takes centre-stage at #CanadaReads2014.
“…the best I can do is try and explain that where I come from we keep animals the likes of which they couldn’t imagine in great numbers for our use. It’s God’s plan. They laugh at this, the idea that one might keep herds of friendly deer or elk that walk happily to their slaughter whenever it’s time for the human to eat meat. Some ask openly if there aren’t consequences of a life so easy to live. The question fascinates me.”
Joseph Boyden is indeed a master storyteller and his amusing insights into the way each party views the behaviours of the other, is delightfully raw and most times justified depending on which side of the fence the character is on.
“Children and dogs run around without care, rolling the dirt with one another. If there is one thing I will not grow accustomed to, it’s the savages’ inability to chastise their children. In all my years here I have never seen an adult even raise in anger towards a child. Indeed, this should be one of the first behaviours we must try to modify. This will not happen, dear Lord, until converts are won, yes?”
Driven by kindness, as well as, a pursuit to do God’s work and lead the natives into salvation, the Crow attempts to keep peace while gently understanding the ways of the Wendats. While the Huron find temporary comfort in the mission, the Crow hopes that they will stay on so that he can teach them about the Great Voice. With offerings of food and weapons, he attempts to keep them at bay and assure them that New France will be their ally against the Iroquois. Unfortunately as it turns out, apart from the single shiny wood weapon gifted to Bird to gain his trust, no more of the promised guns make their way from New France. And, as the ongoing rivalry between the Huron and the Iroquois ensues into a brutal war, there are decisions made that will change their existence like never before.
“Success is measured in different ways. The success of the hunt. The success of the harvest. For some, the success of harvesting souls. We watched all of this, fascinated and frightened. Yes, we saw all that happened and yes, we sometimes smiled, but more often we were filled with fret. The world must change, though. This is no secret.”
Joseph Boyden tactfully reminds us that history is living; it need not be the static artifice of letters penned years ago by the victors. As long as those in power are in the position to nation build and preserve they must also reconcile the viewpoints of aggrieved parties. As The Orenda illustrates, history is no different than the parable of the blind men and the elephant: everyone has their perspective and their stories need to be told.