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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 the “sauvages” 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.
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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.
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 fer...
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