The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

#BeatTheBacklist book 17
2017 book 17

Format: Print (hardcover)
Length: 501 pages
Published: 2013

Intense and (probably) historically accurate fictional account of several years in the lives of a Huron man, his captive/adopted daughter, and a French Jesuit priest. This book was well researched, well written, pretty interesting, and just not my cup of tea.

The Orenda is a portrait of the Huron people in the early 1600s and tells the story of their reluctant partnership with Jesuit missionaries.  It is told in the first person by three narrators.  The voices of the characters are consistent and being inside three different heads allows us to experience the same events from different points of view thereby painting a fuller picture.

Christophe is a French Jesuit priest referred to as the crow by his Huron hosts.   He is not quite a guest and not quite a hostage of the Huron people.  He lives among them, but he is always an outsider and is met with brutality, mockery, and sometimes pity. For several years he fails to save even one soul and he acknowledges to himself and to his superiors, via letters and journal entries, that his mission will probably be a complete failure.  Despite his poor treatment and lack of success, he never experiences more than momentary lapses of faith and never falters in his dedication to his mission.

Bird is a Huron man who is well respected in his community.  His wife and daughters were killed by the enemies of the Huron, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).  To avenge their deaths, Bird aspires to kill 100 Haudenosaunee for each of his family members that they took from him.  That’s a lot of killing and Bird is off to a pretty strong start.  At the beginning of the book he is returning from an outing in which he killed several members of a family and abducted the young daughter to adopt.  Bird is disdainful of the crow, Christophe, and only keeps him in his home because of the status it brings him within the tribe.

Snow Falls is the young girl adopted by Bird.  She is old enough to understand that Bird has brutally murdered her parents and brother and she understandably rejects his attempts at parenting.  She at first feigns interest in the priest’s teachings as an act of insubordination to Bird.  As the years pass and she becomes more a part of the Huron community, she is often torn between two conflicting worlds. She has uncertainties about whether she should be loyal to her birth tribe or her adopted tribe and she finds herself unsure about whether she should look to the gods of her own people or to Christophe’s Christian god.

There were a lot of things to like about this book.  Boyden has some world-building skills that rival Tolkien (excepting of course he didn’t make this world up and all of the characters are humans).  I had no trouble feeling like I was right there with the characters.  Everything from the geography to the rituals to the conversations felt full and real.  Boyden also does an artful job of deepening our understanding of the characters over time.  They grow and mature and their relationships acquire a complexity that rings of truthfulness.

In the end, though, this book just wasn’t for me.  For one thing, it is a downer.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  We all know that the native populations were decimated by disease and war and genocide, so I don’t think it is spoiling anything to say that almost everyone dies.  And most of them die horribly, which brings me to the other thing that didn’t sit well with me.  Graphic torture scenes.  Lots of them.  We’re talking burning sticks in all of your orifices torture.  Like… ewww.  Is the depiction historically accurate?  Maybe.  Did I need to read multiple scenes in which torture is described in graphic detail?  No.  No I did not.

I’m in need of something lighter.  Recommendations are welcome.


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