Friday, May 23, 2014

Joseph Boyden's "The Orenda": Book Review

I've enjoyed two stark and harrowing novels about this same subject, the Jesuit-meets-Huron event in Canada in the early 17th century. Both Brian Moore's "Black Robe" (and the Bruce Beresford film) and William T. Vollmann's "Fathers and Crows" treat the Iron People (French) and the native Wendat (Huron) with sensitivity and insight. "The Orenda" balances neatly its similar perspectives, alternating as did Vollmann between indigenous and Christian participants, but at about half the length (see my "Fathers" review) as so much ethnographic detail and personal reflection expanded Vollmann's account. Moore chose a sparer register to filter his Jesuit missionary's travails among the wilderness and privation and torture.

Joseph Boyden captures both the sprawl of a novel delving relentlessly into a harsh land and a brutal mentality, and the precision of a narrative pair who square off, Bird and Christophe. This novel strips down the details so what remains stands out. In the first dozen pages, already you struggle to keep up with the back-and-forth tension as enemies lurk and death arrives suddenly. As a chronicler of two acclaimed novels, inspired by his own family's roots in the First Nations, this Canadian writer applies a steady eye to the realities of culture clash.

"The weight these men give their dreams will be the end of them." The first paragraph of the first chapter closes as the young Frenchman passes judgement on his captors and those he has been sent to convert. How the charcoal-clad newcomers, as well as the ancient people, possess the "orenda" (the life force) provides the mystery for the First Nations. They wonder how to manage the French. As Gosling warns Bird, these "crows" are "very difficult to tame."

The machinations that ensue, as a Jesuit captive proves valuable in the complications that overtake all the Wendat, dramatic as Moore and Vollmann showed well, here deepen as Boyden takes a nuanced perspective, equally careful to tell this story fairly. This novel expects concentration, and like its intent, wary characters, you are pulled into their mindsets in a vernacular that speaks in our own phrasing, but is whittled down meticulously to express a slightly altered time and setting, attesting to Boyden's skill at rendering this distance vividly.

Enriched by his own sensibility, it can be argued that Boyden's advantage in being placed as he is within the meeting of the two nations deepens the accuracy of his aim: to sharpen our wits as those here must, in order to survive the results of what God and country, iron and warfare, demand. I'll leave off plot summary but I'll encourage you to settle into this historical novel with an awareness that your focus will be rewarded, as your investment in this bracing, bewildering landscape, and the mentalities that it cuts open and tears into, pays off movingly. Amazon US 3/30/14

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