Critical Review of Joseph Boyden's "The Orenda": A Timeless, Classic Colonial Alibi
By Hayden King
The book takes place in Wendaki, or contemporary central Ontario (in fact the community that I come from, Gchi’mnissing in southern Georgian Bay, plays an important role as a haunted safe haven). It covers the last years of the Huron Confederacy, after they’ve formed a trade relationship with the French and on the eve of their dispersal by the Iroquois in a period sometime between 1640 and 1650. To tell a fictionalized account of this story and provide space for each representative group Boyden uses a useful narrative device, shifting the perspective between three characters: Bird, a Huron warrior and leader, Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl adopted by the Huron, and finally and Christophe the Crow, a Jesuit missionary who comes to live among Bird and Snow Falls and based on Jean de Brebeuf (if readers don’t know the history of Brebeuf, this review includes what might be considered spoilers).
While less complex, the multi-narrative technique is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It works for The Orenda especially well because it neatly divides the three central perspectives, often re-telling the same episode from each point of view. The device is also used, I think, to attempt to provide balance to the story and equal space to each of the three groups involved in French colonization. Indeed, in his review of The Orenda the Montreal Gazette’s literary critic Ian McGillis praises Boyden for his fairness and “refus(ing) to draw easy lines between good and bad” and if there are “nominal villains” they are the Jesuits. Boyden himself has said a goal in writing the book was to recount an accurate history without casting blame or making it about “white hats and black hats.”
But almost immediately black hats do emerge. It turns out that the Haudenosaunee are not represented well at all. The girl Snow Falls soon becomes Wendat and the only other Iroquois character of note is Tekakwitia, leader of the army that eventually destroys the Huron and tortures to death Christophe the Crow (and he appears only in the final chapters). In addition, the plot driving the story from the first pages is the threat posed by the relentless and terrifying Haudenosaunee. Bird, Christophe and many of the minor characters spend most of their time worrying and preparing for the inevitable attack, sometimes out-maneuvering the Iroquois, but always living in fear. So readers learn very little except that they're a menace, lurking in the dark forest, waiting to torture or cannibalize. In light of this limited (or skewed) portrayal it’s hard not to see the Iroquois as “nominal villains.”
By Christina Turner
My second issue with the uptake of The Orenda is the way it portrays the Wendat as the architects of their own demise. In the novel, the conflict between the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee is portrayed as largely baseless, arising from an eye-for-an-eye mentality that spurs each side to attack and torture the other year after year. At one point, Bird reneges on a treaty with the Haudenosaunee, wrecking a planned peace deal and setting up the final battle between the two nations (which the Wendat ultimately lose). And as Hayden King notes in his review of the book, "the unnamed Sky People who open each section of the book observe the carnage below and conclude the grim history was pre-determined partly because of the selfishness, arrogance and short-sightedness of the Huron."