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A novel

Written by Joseph BoydenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joseph Boyden

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On Sale: May 13, 2014
Pages: 448 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35074-7
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this hugely acclaimed author’s new novel, history comes alive before us when, in the seventeenth century, a Jesuit missionary ventures into the wilderness in search of converts—the defining moment of first contact between radically different worlds, each at once old and new in its own ways. What unfolds over the next few years is truly epic, constantly illuminating and surprising, sometimes comic, always entrancing, and ultimately all-too-human in its tragic grandeur.

Christophe, as educated as any Frenchman could be about thesauvages” of the New World whose souls he has sworn to save, begins his true enlightenment shortly after he sets out when his native guides—terrified by even a scent of the Iroquois—abandon him to save themselves. But a Huron warrior and elder named Bird soon takes him prisoner, along with a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, whose family he has just killed. The Huron-Iroquois rivalry, now growing vicious, courses through this novel, and these three are its principal characters.

Christophe and Snow Falls are held captive in Bird’s massive village. Champlain’s Iron People have only lately begun trading with the Huron, who mistrust them as well as this Jesuit Crow who has now trespassed onto their land; and Snow Falls’s people, of course, have become the Hurons’ greatest enemy. Bird knows that to get rid of them both would resolve the issue, but he sees Christophe, however puzzling, as a potential envoy to those in New France, and Snow Falls as a replacement for the two daughters he’d lost to the Iroquois. 

These relationships wax and wane as life comes at them relentlessly: a lacrosse match with an allied tribe, a dangerous mission to trade furs with the French for the deadly shining wood that could save the Huron nation, shocking victories in combat and devastating defeats, then a sickness the likes of which none of them has ever seen. The world of The Orenda blossoms to include such unforgettable characters as Bird’s oldest friend, Fox; his lover, Gosling, who some believe possesses magical powers; two more Jesuit Crows who arrive to help form a mission; and boys from both tribes whose hearts veer wildly from one side to the other, for one reason or another. Watching over all of them are the spirits that guide their every move.

The Orenda traces a story of blood and hope, suspicion and trust, hatred and love, that comes to a head when Jesuit and Huron join together against the stupendous wrath of the Iroquois, when everything that any of them has ever known or believed in faces nothing less than annihilation. A saga nearly four hundred years old, it is also timeless and eternal.

Excerpt

CHASTISEMENT
 
They are beautiful people. I cannot ignore this fact. I write all of this down in the bound book I’ve carried tucked in my robe, one of the very few comforts I possess. To bring Jesus into the lives of these people is one mission. To report my findings back to my Superior in Kebec, who will in turn send it to his back home in France, is the other. Ultimately, I write of my journeys and my struggles and my suffering to glorify You. I will die here for You if this is what is requested of me.
These sauvages, they are shameless in their lack of modesty. When the fire burns hot, the children run naked around the longhouse and the women strip down to their waist. The men often walk around in simple breechclouts, and a number of times I’ve witnessed couples I am quite sure aren’t married embracing and then slipping away. The light of the fires, the thick smoke, the primal grunts of passion, the laughing children, the chatter of this language that I struggle so hard to master, I think I might very well be in one of Dante’s rings.
I record in my journal that each longhouse is the length and width of a small ship, and families related through the women reside within. As far as I can tell, eight or ten families, each with its own fire, fill these residences with the noises of humanity. I’ve estimated anywhere from forty to sixty souls in each longhouse, and I believe there to be at least fifty longhouses in this community. What’s more, I’ve been told that this village is just one of many in what I’ve termed Huronia, this land they call Wendake. While it’s possible to walk the length of Huronia in just a few days, I’ve learned that five separate and yet unified nations populate this fertile country, each with its own name. The people I reside with call themselves the Bear, and the other nations are named Rock and Cord and Swamp and Deer. Their sworn enemies, the Iroquois, also consist of five nations, but it seems that the Huron refer to them collectively as Haudenosaunee in their language.
The Huron are, as Champlain so duly noted a number of years ago, the key traders in a very large geography, controlling their business with the keen eye of a banker. They dominate the trade of tribes as disparate as the Montagnais to the north and the Neutral to the south. Their main currency is the vast quantity of corn that they grow each summer. I’m fascinated to watch how their different systems work as time allows, but from what I can see, they trade their produce with the Algonquin and the Nipissing for those hunting people’s furs, mainly beaver, which the Huron then paddle all the way to New France in the summer, where they trade those furs for staples such as iron axes and copper kettles and all form of glass beads, which to the Huron are as valuable as gold. They in turn bring back these treasures from New France and again trade them with their neighbours to the north and south. Yes, they are indeed the lynchpin to the economy of this new world.
Now that it’s winter, each family sleeps up off the ground on raised platforms, mother on one end, father on the other, children squeezed in between. They are smart enough to peel the bark from the wood they burn but it’s still sometimes so smoky that my eyes are often irritated. These longhouses are truly a wonder, like giant beehives woven together with saplings and covered in sheets of bark. Up in the rafters hang corn and beans and squash and tobacco and dried fish and all manner of food that I’ve never seen before. The Huron winters are clearly the time of relaxation and enjoyment. All day long the mothers play with their children, and the dozen or so dogs that wander through the longhouse are treated as members of the family as well, eating from their hosts’ kettles and sleeping in their beds, and all this madness of life surrounds me while the men stand in groups, taking turns visiting one another’s longhouses to talk and laugh and smoke pipes of tobacco.
The men are tall, some nearly my size. I’ve always towered over my companions in France. Wasn’t it the dear Bishop who nicknamed me the Brittany Giant? But these ones have a musculature that’s impressive, taut stomachs and strong arms, their brown, hairless skin in the winter firelight like oil paintings that have come alive. Some have their women pluck and shave the hair from both sides of their heads with sharpened and intricately decorated clamshells, leaving a thick brush of it running down the centre that they grease until it stands on end. An ancient sailor on the miserable voyage over from the old world to this new one regaled all of us with his experiences in this land, going so far as to claim he was the one to first name these people Huron, wild boars, for how he thought the men’s hair bristles like a pig’s. Other warriors grow their hair long and shave off only one side of it, which leaves them looking frightening and half-mad. On the warpath, Bird and his soldiers paint their faces in red and yellow and black ochre. I am sure this was meant to stir the same fear in their enemies that it did in me.
The women are as striking as the men with their long shining black hair, their white smiles flashing against brown skin. They go to great lengths to decorate themselves, sometimes spending hours chattering as they braid feathers and tiny painted clay beads into one another’s hair. Some of them have even tattooed their bodies with the images of animals, and these women seem held in high regard. Many of them love to flirt with me, regardless of their age. They smile coyly, and the younger ones think nothing of touching my hand or my arm, as if to prove to themselves that I’m indeed real. Word has gotten out that my vows prevent me from being with women, but obviously their simplicity prevents them from understanding the complexity of Catholicism. As I preached the other day, after much confusion in our mutual understanding, a man dared to ask me if I preferred boys, causing all the others to laugh hysterically. This childlike comprehension of the world will be both my greatest test and a wonderful tool. I’ll treat them as I once treated young children back in France when I was given the rather odious mission of teaching them the catechism.
These first ten days, I feel like a prisoner in this glowing longhouse filled with smoke. Bird is clearly an important man in this community. I’ve watched people bring him gifts and come to visit now that he’s back. And I understand the crowds come as much to see me as they do Bird. I take this opportunity to try to bring a little of God’s light into this dark corner of the world. For months last year back in Kebec, I worked on learning the Huron language, a converted sauvage with the Christian name of Luke teaching me its guttural intricacies.
He explained that I had to begin to grasp the natural world around me if I were ever to conquer the language. The Huron, Luke said, don’t live above the natural world but as a part of it. The key to their language was to make the connection between man and nature. I scoffed at this. A language doesn’t exist that can’t be learned by rote. And You, Lord, have given us the natural world for our use and our governance. Man was not meant to grovel in the dirt with animals but to rise above them. I make note in my relations to be sent back in due course to you, my dear Superior, that this is a lesson paramount for the conversion of the sauvages. I had long ago proved myself masterful with languages. Thanks be to God, I’ve been given the gift of Latin and Greek, a little English, some Dutch. In fact, dear Superior, did you not choose me for this mission to New France because of my ability to learn new tongues?
Just one more reflection for now, something I find both fascinating and appalling. In matters of the spirit, these sauvages believe that we all have within us a life force that is similar, if you will, to our own Catholic belief in the soul. They call this life force the orenda. That is the fascinating part. What appals me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground. In fact, every last thing in their world contains its own spirit. When I pushed Bird about this, he explained it to me in a rather odd way. He told me of a recent hunting trip in which he pursued a deer for a long time. Eventually he caught up to and killed it. “My orenda overpowered its orenda,” he said. “The deer’s orenda allowed me to take it.” He then looked at me as if his words might explain with final clarity this strange belief of theirs. I have to admit, dear Superior, that I’m still left confused.
Today, a dozen of them sit on the ground in front of me, staring and whispering amongst themselves, watching my every move and study- ing me with such intensity that I begin to sweat. Those closest to me hold their noses or fan their faces as if I’m the one who reeks, despite their overpowering smells of smoke and hide and what I can only describe as lustful intention. A couple of young women sitting at my feet try to peer up my cassock and then laugh as they mimic me blessing myself. An old man near the wall sits with a rigid back and his arms crossed, his thin lips scowling.
Like a child struggling for words, I slowly begin with the holy lamb. But there is no such thing as a lamb in the world of these people, and so Jesus becomes a fawn, a fawn whose blood is spilled so that we might live eternally. One heckler, an old woman, says loudly that the thought of fawn’s blood makes her hungry in this winter when fresh meat is scarce, and why do I torture her so? The others laugh at this. I’ve learned quickly that they laugh often, even at the most inappropriate times.
“If you take the fawn that is Jesus into your life,” I say slowly and then stop, straining for the words. “Your hunger. Gone.”
They scoff at this. “Not go hungry ever again?” one young man asks. “Does this mean we are dead?” Again there is more laughter and more discussion in their tongue, all of it too quick for me to understand.
When the crowd breaks down like this, usually after only a few minutes of my speaking, I know I’ve lost them. And that’s when I take my chalice and white cloth from my bag, and I use a bit of their sagamité, the horrid corn mush they call ottet that’s the staple of their diet in the winter and on travels. With this mush that I’ve flattened and dried and rounded into a small Host, I perform the most sacred of sacraments, lifting the chalice of melted snow water to Heaven so that it might become Your blood, raising the corn wafer to the sky so it transforms into Your flesh. This always silences them. They watch every little move with the eyes of hawks, all humour gone from their faces. Apparently, they’re more susceptible to my actions than to my words. I’ve made careful note of this, and wait patiently for the day when one of them will dare ask that he or she might also take a sip from the chalice, a nibble from my outstretched hand.
And yet there’s one who watches everything, who misses nothing, who doesn’t rudely interrupt when I preach. The young Iroquois girl hides beneath her sleeping robe, the girl I carried in my arms through that nightmarish day. In all the time we’ve been here, I can’t remember seeing her move from her perch above me in the bed beside Bird’s. I desperately hope that no ill intention exists in Bird’s loins. I find it very strange indeed that he’s the only one in the longhouse without a wife or family. Has the sauvage taken this girl to be a child bride? I will keep a close eye on this.
Early this morning I wake up in the dark, the wind blowing hard and Bird stoking the fire before sneaking out of the longhouse. Sleep beckons me back to its warmth and comfort, and it’s exactly this I know I must fight. I deserve neither of these as long as those around me remain heathen. Forcing myself up from my blanket, I kneel on the hard ground in the corner away from the fire in just my nightshirt, shivering through my morning prayers and contemplation. The girl troubles me. She troubles me deeply. The image of her stripping naked in the snow and offering herself to me is burned into my memory no matter how hard I try to erase it. It was her smile as she lay exposed there, asking me something I couldn’t comprehend. And then the wickedness of what she wished me to do dawned on me and forced my hand harshly across her mouth. I’ve already made careful note of this in my relations to dear Superior, which I can only hope will eventually reach him. The one conclusion I can draw from the depravity and brutality I’ve witnessed so far is that these beings, while certainly human, exist on a plane far lower than even Europe’s lowest caste.
I must remember, though, that all of us are God’s creatures. It is my mission to begin to help these poor souls rise up. The only way that their eternal souls might be saved is to accept Jesus, and to do this they must accept the Eucharist.
As if Christ Himself speaks directly to me on this frigid morning deep in this troubled land, I can see a vision materialize through the fog of my breath. The girl will become my first convert. I know this as surely as anything I’ve ever known. I remember her hand clutch- ing my crucifix as we walked the last miles and were accosted by the Huron sentries. The poor thing is in desperate need of redemption. Her tempting me is evidence. And I have been brought here to offer it to her.
When I am finished my morning vespers, I don my heavy black robe, noting that it’s saturated with my scent, the heavy stink of hard labour, the sour odour of sheer fear, and suddenly I feel self-conscious. I push this worry away. I must rise above the physical stains of humanity. My mission is more than the mundane facts of everyday life. I am more than that.
The sounds of sleep still echo through the longhouse as I climb the ladder to the young girl’s bed. It strikes me I don’t even know her name. No need. Soon enough, I will give her a Christian one. This will be a first for this territory, and word of it will travel far.
The girl lies on her back, tucked into a plush beaver robe. Her mouth is slightly open and I can’t help but smile to notice a thin string of spit runs from the side of it. She appears deep in sleep, and for this I’m thankful. She’s been through so much. We all have. Though Bird tied me to a tree out of sight of her family’s massacre, the sounds of struggle and screaming and slaughter still haunt me. The girl has gone mute for good reason. At her age she saw what no one should ever have to witness. The brutality these people are so willing to show their enemies astounds me.
I stare at the girl for a long time in the dim light, trying to understand her. I suddenly realize that I am trying to see her humanity. She’s not very beautiful, at least in comparison to the other children around her. She’d be better looking if not for the scars of some childhood disease that ravaged her face. Epidemics have begun to sweep through these people the last few years. I can only take this as a sign from God, a divine message. Any fool can see that when great change comes, the weak and the wicked will suffer. But the converted will live on.
I bless myself and whisper prayers of devotion and of gratitude and of guidance. I pray most fervently for the salvation of the soul of the young one sleeping in front of me. When I’m done, I raise the silver crucifix, a gift from my dear mother before departing on this voyage, and kiss it, then decide to lower it to the girl’s lips. After all, she’s already shown such fascination with the cross.
As Jesus touches her mouth, I’m shocked to see her eyes dart open. She raises her arms and pushes against my chest. Only now do I realize how closely I’m hovering over her. Her fists are a flurry of punches against me, and as I lean away, the crucifix in hand, she begins screaming. Panicked, I clap my hand over her mouth before she wakes the others. They’ll see me up here with her and will not understand. I plead with her in whispers to be quiet but her eyes only widen more. When she bites my hand, the pain shoots up my arm and I pull it shoulder slams into the unforgiving earth with the crack of what must be a bone breaking, the dull throb followed immediately by a sharp pain that sucks the breath from me. Bird stands above, his face contorted in anger, a knife in his hand. He raises it as he straddles my chest. I can see that he’ll do it, and my first reaction is regret that I’ve come all this way only to fail in converting a single sauvage. I close my eyes and whisper to Jesus for another chance, wait for the burn of the knife across my throat.
But it doesn’t come. Instead, I hear a strange voice, young but gravelly, speaking calmly, rationally, in Huron. It’s not quite human in tone, more like a small animal that’s learned to speak like a two-legged being. I pick up certain words. Spirit. Father. Illness. I slowly open my eyes. Bird stares at me, and, over his shoulder, up in the rafters on her sleeping perch, the girl peers down, talking to the back of Bird’s head, her thin face hovering above us in the early light that comes in from the smoke holes of the longhouse. Her face shimmers in the glow of morning and fire smoke so that I can’t help but think of her as a spirit, a ghost who’s appeared to intervene. Bird stands up, with one foot on either side of me. He says nothing, but his look tells me as surely as if he were screaming it. Never touch this girl again. He turns then and strides out. I look around and see the other families have risen from their beds and stand in a ring at a distance, staring. I look up to glimpse the strange sight of the girl once more, but already she’s disappeared.
For three days, no one visits or speaks to me. I assume this is Bird’s punishment. And so, unsure if I’m even allowed to leave the longhouse, I sit in a corner that offers some privacy and spend long hours in prayer and reflection. At least I attempt to, but a growing sense of isolation, of what by the second day I realize is malaise, sets in. Like snow built up on a roof too long, I fear I creak with too much weight. I fear I will col- lapse. My shoulder was dislocated in the fall, and the right arm hangs limply, now longer than the left. The pain is breathtaking. If only I had another Jesuit here to re-set it. If only I had another Brother here to speak with, another priest with whom I might seek confession and absolution. I try to sleep but it’s fitful, shot through with a deep-seated fear that I’ve gone so far into this bizarre and brutal land that even God has lost contact with me. away. The girl’s screams pierce my ears, ringing through the longhouse, and just under them I can hear the sounds of people awakening abruptly all around me, of men scuffling for their weapons. A rush of cold air sweeps up to send chills down my back and I hear feet scrambling up the ladder, then feel a hand grab my cassock and yank.
Now I’m falling, and I close my eyes and grit my teeth just as my shoulder slams into the unforgiving earth with the crack of what must be a bone breaking, the dull throb followed immediately by a sharp pain that sucks the breath from me. Bird stands above, his face con- torted in anger, a knife in his hand. He raises it as he straddles my chest. I can see that he’ll do it, and my first reaction is regret that I’ve come all this way only to fail in converting a single sauvage. I close my eyes and whisper to Jesus for another chance, wait for the burn of the knife across my throat.
But it doesn’t come. Instead, I hear a strange voice, young but gravelly, speaking calmly, rationally, in Huron. It’s not quite human in tone, more like a small animal that’s learned to speak like a two-legged being. I pick up certain words. Spirit. Father. Illness. I slowly open my eyes. Bird stares at me, and, over his shoulder, up in the rafters on her sleeping perch, the girl peers down, talking to the back of Bird’s head, her thin face hovering above us in the early light that comes in from the smoke holes of the longhouse. Her face shimmers in the glow of morning and fire smoke so that I can’t help but think of her as a spirit, a ghost who’s appeared to intervene. Bird stands up, with one foot on either side of me. He says nothing, but his look tells me as surely as if he were screaming it. Never touch this girl again. He turns then and strides out. I look around and see the other families have risen from their beds and stand in a ring at a distance, staring. I look up to glimpse the strange sight of the girl once more, but already she’s disappeared.
For three days, no one visits or speaks to me. I assume this is Bird’s punishment. And so, unsure if I’m even allowed to leave the longhouse, I sit in a corner that offers some privacy and spend long hours in prayer and reflection. At least I attempt to, but a growing sense of isolation, of what by the second day I realize is malaise, sets in. Like snow built up on a roof too long, I fear I creak with too much weight. I fear I will col- lapse. My shoulder was dislocated in the fall, and the right arm hangs limply, now longer than the left. The pain is breathtaking. If only I had another Jesuit here to re-set it. If only I had another Brother here to speak with, another priest with whom I might seek confession and absolution. I try to sleep but it’s fitful, shot through with a deep-seated fear that I’ve gone so far into this bizarre and brutal land that even God has lost contact with me.
What of the others? I set out from New France with the plan of reaching Huronia late last summer. I was promised that a group of Jesuits who were due to arrive soon from Normandy would follow if the season still permitted.
In the best of conditions the trip from Kebec to Huronia is a three- week-long act of brutality, back-breaking work of paddling and portaging great distances, which means lifting everything from the canoes and making multiple trips, sometimes of miles, through bogs or up steep embankments, half the weight of a man strapped to your back. Living daily with swarms of insects that sting and itch and bite, hoping for the short respite of rain and, when it comes, shivering in the downpours, then wishing for some sun again, despite this meaning the return of the insects. Starving even as the sauvages seem to grow stronger from the scarcity of food, waking before dawn each morning and bending their backs against the currents in their flimsy, wobbly craft until dark, smoking their wretched tobacco in place of meals. They grew more muscular as I began to wither.
But the worst aspect of my journey was certainly the Iroquois, enemies of us French. To get to Huronia, one must pass through their country. Yes, being hunched from dawn to dusk on scabbed and bloody knees, the painful monotony of paddling into wind and rain, never resting or stopping to eat until light faded, this was simply crushing. The abject fear, though, that I tried to constantly quell was of being surprised by an Iroquois raiding party. I did all that I knew to do. I tried to place myself in Your hands. And I am so sorry that, for a time, I failed.
I’d left New France last year with a small party of Algonquin who promised Champlain himself that they would deliver me safely to the Hurons. I forgive them now, as I write this to dear Superior in my book. After all, I admit I’m a weak paddler and despite my size, couldn’t carry nearly as much as them. I remember them grumbling and complaining amongst themselves for the ten days. One heathen even began to loudly suggest I was a demon in human form. But it’s when we came across a barely cold Iroquois campfire that the Algonquin made their decision. That afternoon, after they inspected the camp, silent and cautious as wolves, and just as I was relieving myself behind a clump of willow, they climbed into their canoes. They’d deposited my black cloth bag containing my chalice and diary and few personal possessions on the shore, along with a small sack of food. I emerged from the bush and watched as they paddled away at speed.
The more I shouted for them to come back, the faster they worked to get away. I quit only when it dawned on me they wouldn’t return and that my shouts might very well alert the Iroquois, who couldn’t be far away, to my presence.
The terror consumed me those first hours as I huddled behind that same clump of willow, peering out at the lake in hopes the Algonquin might return for me, pleading to You, Lord, that this not be the way I was to perish. Might not dying alone, slowly starving and going mad, lost in the tangle of forest as the mosquitoes ate me alive, be even worse than to die the death of a martyr at the vicious hands of the Iroquois? This morning, as I sit ignored in the corner of the longhouse, I truly come to understand that my life, and my death, are preordained, and I come to the understanding that fretting over all of this will not aid my mission but cripple it.
This third morning of chastisement, I kneel on the hard ground shivering, and I finally feel the fear that’s consumed me release and begin to lift from my back, a fear that’s burdened me since I first set foot in this foreign and desperate place. With my left hand, I force my right arm up the wall until it’s above my head, my shoulder braying its anguish. I whisper now to You as I throw my weight hard into the wall. I feel the ball popping into its joint again as I collapse. I fall to the floor and bite my hand to stop a scream from escaping and awaking the house.
I will die. We’ll all die. How many times have I narrowly escaped it in the past few months? The last few days? My death most probably will happen here in this foreign world, away from my family, at the hands of these people. So be it, Lord. So be it.
Joseph Boyden

About Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden - The Orenda

Photo © Norman Wong

Joseph Boyden’s first two novels won virtually every prize that Canada has to offer. Three Day Road  (2005):  the Roger’s Writers Trust Prize; the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year; the Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year; the Libris Book of the Year; and the Amazon/Canada First Novel Award. Through Black Spruce (2008): the Scotiabank Giller Prize; the Libris Book of the Year; the Libris Author of the Year.

In 2012, Boyden was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to Canadian art and culture.  The following year, The Orenda was a number-one best seller there. 

On the faculty of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico, he divides his time between Northern Ontario and New Orleans, Louisiana.  
Praise | Awards

Praise

“Magnificent. . . an extraordinary work of art, savage and beautiful. It immerses us in an ancient culture and chronicles a period of catastrophic change. . . . Boyden’s profound comprehension of and compassion for all his characters invite us to acknowledge the wholeness of the life force [called] “the orenda”: a unity encompassing cruelty and kindness, ignorance and understanding, inevitable sorrow and joy. . . . The clash of civilizations assumes personal dimensions [through his] charismatic, flawed and achingly human protagonists.” —Wendy Smith, The Washington Post
 
“Profoundly spiritual [with] an epic quality [and] a gorgeous simplicity in service of this transcendent tale. . . . a rare reading experience that stayed with me even when away from the book and long after I finished reading it.” —David Takami, The Seattle Times

The Orenda is a heart song that spans the continent, and echoes to us across the years. At times devastating and difficult, Joseph Boyden’s novel is equally compassionate and inspiring.” —Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

“I tend to approach historical fiction with a certain reluctance to suspend disbelief, yet a few paragraphs into The Orenda I was so thoroughly absorbed in Joseph Boyden’s recreation of the moment of first contact between Old World and New that I was digging my nails into my palms. It's a thoroughly beautiful, brilliantly imagined and terrifying novel that seems to tell us something fresh and original about the tragic collision that shaped our continent.” —Jay McInerney
 
“Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is a sublime, haunting, and harrowing achievement—a work of fiction, of art, of myth-making at its very finest.” —Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
 
“Years from now, The Orenda will be called a classic, but for now Joseph Boyden will have to settle for visionary, majestic, awe-inspiring. The prose is incandescent—and the cultural, tribal, spiritual battles are as gripping as anything I have ever read. There is magic in these pages that will convince you there is magic in the world.” —Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon, The Wilding, and Refresh, Refresh

“It is Joseph Boyden’s characters that stay with a reader. So generously drawn and flawed and honest in their cruelties and compassion and righteousness and sacrifice, in their embrace of family, their reach toward spirit. The Orenda is truly a magical accomplishment, rendered vividly in scenes of water and earth and blood.” —Mark Spragg, author of An Unfinished Life and Bone Fire
 
“Spellbinding. . . Epic in scope, exquisite in execution.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)  

Mesmerizing. . . In this deeply researched work, Boyden captures his characters’ disparate beliefs, remaining impartial even as they pass judgment on the customs they find simultaneously fascinating and repellent in the others. The prose conveys a raw beauty in its depictions of trade journeys, daily life within longhouses, and spirituality. . .  [The Orenda] offers many intense impressions of cross-cultural conflicts and differences, yet it is most affecting when evoking its protagonists’ shared humanity and life force—the “orenda”—burning brightly within each of them.” —Sarah Johnson, Booklist (starred review)

“Dignified and penetrating.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“A stunning, masterful work of staggering depth. . . it is like nothing you have ever read, and read it you must. . . . The Orenda is a feat, an achievement [that] is impossible to read without coming away profoundly shaken, possibly changed.” – Robert J. Wiersema, The Vancouver Sun
 
“Profoundly researched and told in elegant, muscular prose. . . a great, heartbreaking novel, full of fierce action and superb characters and an unblinking humanity.”  —Charles Foran, The Globe and Mail
 
“[A] stunning historical epic. . . the entire novel unfolds like one of the Huron’s mystical visions. We experience their world in such tremendous detail [and] come away with a sense of intimacy and a respect . . . Boyden’s innate respect for his characters—aboriginal and European—translates into a powerful and convincing depiction of both faiths.” —Donna Bailey Nurse, The Windsor Star
 

Awards

WINNER 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Orenda, Joseph Boyden’s masterful and harrowing epic about the first encounters between Jesuit missionaries and the native tribes of Canada, and the tremendous cultural and social shifts that result from these interactions.

About the Guide

Ambitious in scope yet deeply intimate in its execution, The Orenda is award-winning author Joseph Boyden’s riveting saga of the first encounters between the native populations of New France and the Jesuit missionaries who attempt to convert them. This defining moment of human history is rendered in exquisite detail, told through the alternating perspectives of a young Iroquois girl, a Huron warrior, and a French missionary. In prose as luminous as it is brutal, their stories illuminate the great moral complexities that arise when these cultures are forced to co-exist.

Jesuit missionary Christophe arrives to the New World in the seventeenth century with dreams of spreading the word of God to the “sauvages” of this unknown wilderness. One year into his mission, the native guides with whom he has traveled are ambushed by the Iroquois, forcing Christophe to flee for his life. Weakened and injured, Christophe and a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, barely escape the violence before they are captured by Bird, a Huron warrior. Bird takes Christophe and Snow Falls to his village as prisoners, ultimately deciding to use Chrostophe as an emissary in trade negotiations between the Huron and Champlain’s Iron People, and Snow Falls as a surrogate daughter following the tragic deaths of his own. As time passes, their relationships evolve and become more complex, often in reaction to the intense social upheaval of the time. From bloody battles that rage between tribes to illnesses that cripple populations in the most devastating ways, Christophe, Bird, and Snow Falls face tremendous challenges as they navigate this new society. And as the Huron hurtle toward an all-out war with the Iroquois, conditions worsen, ultimately leading Bird, Christophe, and Snow Falls to re-evaluate themselves and their cultural assumptions entirely.

With unwavering perceptiveness, The Orenda is a tale for the ages—an epic journey of bloodshed and triumph, of misery and defeat and, ultimately, the extremes of humanity.

About the Author

Joseph Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, was selected for the Today Show Book Club, and it won the Roger’s Writers Trust Prize, the Amazon/Canada First Novel Award, as well as numerous others prizes. His second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Canadian Booksellers Association’s Libris Book of the Year Award; it also earned him the Libris Author of the Year Award. Boyden, of Ojibwe, Irish, and Scottish roots, is a member of the creative writing faculty at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He divides his time between Northern Ontario and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Discussion Guides

1. The Orenda is told from the alternating perspective of three narrators, but is periodically punctuated by the voice of an omniscient narrator. Discuss the significance of this voice. Who or what does this represent? Compare the passage that begins the book with the one at the end of the novel. What do these passages assert about the legacy of the Huron people? The influence of the Jesuits?

2. Discuss the Jesuit’s mission to bring Christianity to the New World. Are Christophe’s intentions pure? Would you classify his attempts at converting the Hurons as successful? What tensions arose in the community because of his efforts?

3. How does the Jesuit’s mission to bring Christianity to the New World coincide with Champlain’s vision for conquering the area? How does it conflict?

4. The relationship between Bird and Snow Falls fully evolves over the course of The Orenda. When it begins, Snow Falls’s hatred of Bird is unabashed, yet by the end of the novel she thinks of him as her father. How does this change occur? What challenges did their relationship face before Snow Falls came to terms with her role as daughter?

5. The Orenda takes place over the course of several years, showcasing Snow Falls’s development from pre-pubescence to motherhood. How is womanhood marked in the Huron culture? How do other women in the village help to guide her?

6. How does the relationship between Bird and Christophe evolve over time? Do you think the men respect each other, despite their differences?

7. On page 123, Christophe admits that he wrestles with “the grave worry that our work is being exploited by those who wish not for the souls of the sauvages but for the riches of the land.” Relate this statement to the scene in which Christophe and the Huron journey to Champlain’s settlement. How do Champlain and his people take advantage of the Huron?

8. Death is a constant theme throughout The Orenda. How does the Huron culture approach death? How do they honor their deceased relatives? Compare their attitudes toward death as opposed to that of the “charcoal.” How do their differing attitudes about spirituality affect the way they perceive the afterlife?

9. The acquisition of power is a central theme throughout The Orenda, and it manifests itself in various ways throughout the plot. How does Christophe try to obtain power over the natives? How does Bird try to maintain a position of power over his enemies? How is rape and torture used as a means of obtaining power?

10. Discuss the concept of the “oki.” How does this belief differ from the tenets of Christianity? How are these differences in beliefs reflected in both cultures’ approach to living, dying, nature, and family?

11. Though undeniably brutal, the process of torturing one’s enemies in the native cultures serves an almost ritualistic function. Discuss the various means in which captives are “caressed,” and the spiritual element to this process. Why do you think the torturers provide food and water to their captives? What is the expectation of captives in facing their fate? Explore the natives’ approach to death by torture in comparison to the Christian idea of martyrdom.

12. As the novel progresses, illnesses play an increasingly significant role, wreaking havoc on the social structure of the villages. How do illnesses affect how the community functions? Explore the role of “healers” in the Huron community.

13. What are the expected roles of males compared to females in the Huron community? In what respects do women have power? Explore the relationship between Bird and Gosling. How would you characterize their coupling?

14. Throughout the novel, Christophe oscillates between being shocked and appalled about the natives’ way of living and showing curiosity about their traditions. What does he admire about their culture? And does he participate in it? Would you say that his participation comes out of respect or out of obligation?

15. Did it shock you when Isaac murdered Snow Falls? Why do you think he chose to take others’ lives in addition to his own?

16. As a reader, what did you find most revealing about The Orenda? Did the novel challenge any of your opinions about colonization of North America? About the native populations?

Suggested Readings

Fools Crow by James Welch; Tracks by Louise Erdrich; Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks; The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America by Allan Greer (ed.); The Spirit Keeper by K. B. Laugheed

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