Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Orenda: a very short review

I devoured Joseph Boyden's The Orenda, as it devoured me.

The Orenda, to be frank, is often not a pleasant book to read. It is fiction, but set very firmly in a tragic historical context: the utter collapse of the Huron Nation in the late 1600's.

The Orenda is a story of tragedy, devastation, and despair, yet somehow it is also a story of humanity, beauty, devotion, and affection.

The author uses an unusual narrative structure: the book is told entirely in the first person, but it alternates, chapter by chapter, among the voices of three separate co-narrators:

  1. Snow Falls, an Iroquois princess
  2. Bird, a Huron war chief
  3. and Christophe, a Jesuit missionary

In and out of the overall story we go, sometimes letting a single narrator carry the story for long stretches, at other times seeing the same event from two or sometimes even three completely different perspectives.

Boyden's genius is that he completely inhabits each of these characters, allowing us, in turn, to live these events ourselves, witnessing the horror, yet simultaneously comprehending how it was and how it came to be.

If you read this book (and you should!), let me caution you to prepare yourself for a long and dark ride: The Orenda starts out bleak, descends into tragedy, and concludes in a maelstrom of horror.

Yet, somehow, it is so exquisitely drawn that it is simultaneously full of aching beauty.

Let me try to illustrate with a short excerpt:

Each day as we struggle against the current, I watch the men turn leaner, more focused, more silent. From first light until night threatens we push up this wide, black river with birch and maple and poplar thick on the banks. So many good places for my father's brothers to ambush these canoes. I hope they've brought a hundred men, two hundred men. Enough to kill Bird and all of his war-bearers. The country here is beautiful. The rocks run right down into the water that's dark as the darkest night, and when the men stop to rest, I lie upon those rocks and let their heat soak into me. A wind from the east has brought good skies, and this kind wind blows away the flies and mosquitoes. These might be the most beautiful days of sun I've ever known after the rain of last week stopped. This is the perfect time, and the prettiest of country, in which to witness my father's brothers kill these enemies.

Boyden doesn't overwhelm you with technique and style. He understands that these people, and their stories, are all that he needs, and he (remarkably!) disappears from the book, so that soon you feel that Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe are real people, whose real recollections were simply captured by some well-placed tape recorder, and then faithfully transcribed.

It's an astonishing achievement, and an astonishing book.

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