Friday, October 17, 2014

Keshen Gooman's Thomas Raddall Book Club reads The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden - Keshen Goodman's Thomas Raddall Book Club

This month the Thomas Raddall Book Club tackled Joseph Boyden's new novel, The Orenda which is a historical novel about the roots of colonialism in Canada.

"An epic story of first contact between radically different worlds, steeped in the natural beauty and brutality of our country's formative years. A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation's great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees that the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the troubled road ahead. Bird's people have battled the Iroquois for as long as he can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous threat from afar. Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling among the Huron, and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to the new world. As these three souls dance with each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars and a nation emerges from worlds in flux." - Discover

Opinions about The Orenda were somewhat mixed for the book club members. Although most (though certainly not all) agreed that it was an important book and one worth reading, it was also almost universally acknowledged to be a challenging read. One reason for the difficulty was that the novel is incredibly violent. Boyden attempts to showcase the mentality of violence among warring Huron and Iroquois factions, the effect of which is a book that is both "terrific and horrific". Many of the book club members had listened to Wab Kinew's defense of The Orenda on CBC radio's Canada Reads and were not unanimously convinced by his argument that violence was a form of respect within the novel.

The book club was also interested in discussing the interesting conceptions of faith and belief that run throughout the book in the juxtaposition of native faith and spirituality with the Jesuit and Christian concepts of religion. The concept of the orenda, which a kind of life force, pervades discussions of the novel and the characters' motivations.

There were some members who felt that Boyden overstepped his abilities in attempting to portray the thought processes and way of speaking of Native Canadians at that time. There were also criticisms of the way that violence was most often attributed to Huron and Iroquois characters. The problem which continually creates controversy about The Orenda is whether Boyden's portrayal of Jesuits and Native Canadians represents a colonialist alibi or a reconciliation manifesto -- it seems to depend who you ask.

For more on the debates surrounding The Orenda try Canada Reads and an a CBC article:

If you enjoyed The Orenda, Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce and Three Day Road are similarly controversial and fascinating novels.

Through Black Spruce

"A young Cree woman who has been searching for her missing sister sits at the hospital bedside of her unconscious uncle, an injured bush pilot. Both share family tragedies and personal resilience." - Discover

Three Day Road

"It is 1919, and Niska, the last Oji-Cree medicine woman to live off the land, has received word that one of the two boys she grudgingly saw off to war has returned. She leaves her home in the bush of Northern Ontario to retrieve him, only to discover that the one she expected is actually the other. Xavier Bird, her sole living relation, gravely wounded and addicted to the army's morphine, hovers somewhere between the living world and that of the dead. As Niska paddles him the three days home, she realizes that all she can offer in her attempt to keep him alive is her words, the stories of her life. In turn, Xavier relates the horrifying years of war in Europe: he and his best friend, Elijah Whiskeyjack, prowled the battlefields of France and Belgium as snipers of enormous skill. As their reputations grew, the two young men, with their hand-sewn moccasins and extraordinary marksmanship, became both the pride and fear of their regiment as they stalked the ripe killing fields of Ypres and the Somme. But what happened to Elijah? As Niska paddles deeper into the wilderness, both she and Xavier confront the devastation that such great conflict leaves in its wake. Inspired in part by real-life World War I Ojibwa hero Francis Pegahmagabow, Three Day Road reinvents the tradition of such Great War epics as Birdsong and All Quiet on the Western Front. Beautifully written and told with unblinking focus, it is a remarkable tale, one of brutality, survival, and rebirth." - Jacket

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