Monday, June 16, 2014

"The Orenda," by Joseph Boyden

Spoiler alerts are not always necessary when you're dealing with established history.

If you read a book about a diminished Indian tribe and vanished way of life, such as "The Orenda," you can expect things don't go well for the Native-American protagonist(s).

Joseph Boyden's harrowing account of the Hurons' demise is distinct to the extent it lays most of the blame at the doorstep of inter-tribal warfare.

Yes, 17th Century French missionaries are on hand, but at this stage of colonial development, too much on their haunches and concerned with fur trading to go in for Indian extermination.

They are business partners with the Huron and their military impact appears limited to the distribution of gunpowder on both sides of the Indian war, although they import diseases that kill more of the local populace than any army could hope to.

The book opens with the murder of some Iroquois by a Huron war party. The raid is conducted by one of three narrators in the story, Bird, a warrior avenging his own family's murder and he tells his story in conversations with his departed wife. After killing a young Iroquois girl's family before her eyes, he absconds with the child, bent on replacing his own lost daughter.

The little girl is known as Snow Falls, and she is a second teller of "The Orenda" by way of confessions to her murdered father. Bird's war party has gone beyond the typical affront to Iroquois pride, because Snow Falls possesses certain spiritual qualities as the "western door" of her people.

She is of exceptional value to them at first. Later, the spiral of violence her kidnapping triggered gains its own momentum and her existence with the Huron no longer matters to the infuriated Iroquois.

The third narrator is a French and Jesuit missionary named Christophe whose thoughts about the "sauvages," and bringing the light of Christ to their dark world, are rendered in dispatches to his superiors.

Christophe provides the perspective of Western culture.

When he tries to explain the European system of raising and eating sheep, "[The Huron] laugh at this, the idea that one might keep herds of friendly deer or elk that walk happily to their slaughter
whenever it's time for the human to eat more meat. Some ask openly if there aren't consequences of a life so easily lived. The question fascinates me."

This formula results in a lively telling, because the alternating accounts provide a variety of perspectives on the same event. The differences in the way a mystical Indian girl and a Catholic priest measure their mutual encounters is both amusing and revealing.

The understanding and mixed admiration Bird and Christophe hold for each other is echoed when it comes to culture. Each is repulsed by certain habits of their partners in convenience, but amazed and intrigued by others.

In doing this, "The Orenda" lays bear the motivations for collaboration and conflict between Indian tribes and the French colonials, demonstrates the short-term, commercial considerations that led to long-term strategic Huron defeats.

The sauvages may be attuned to the Earth and take behavioral pointers from birdsong, but they are not immune to the consumer virus.

Sky Man, a visitor from a nearby tribe, tells council as he points to a copper kettle, "Our trade with the Iron People has brought us oddities that have now become necessities. Our people just love this stuff. We can't get enough of it."

The author also probes the violent fissures in Native American life that precluded a concerted effort to defend an entire existence from the obviously encroaching European.

Author Boyden has no truck with claims of innocence by any party to the calamity under his microscope. Instead the different factions mirror each other's cruelties and drive home the point that torture transcends cultural boundaries.

When an Iroquois war party captures some Huron, or vice versa, the prisoners are aware that they are in for three days of "caressing," or torture, painstakingly detailed in a variety of scenes by the writer.

It's no beach read. In fact, if a single word had to be summonsed to describe this novel, "brutal" would be a strong candidate.

New France is a place where people short on luck living very short lives commit whatever action is necessary to survive another day and eat some very bad food.

It is no surprise Thomas Hobbes, a product of the same epoch, declared life, or the "state of nature" in which all these characters reside, to be "solitary, poor, nasty, short, and brutish."

"The Orenda" works as a war story, a tale of spiritual conflict, the reconstruction of a vanished life, and the recuperation of a people. It is complex storytelling that does not come across as complicated and successfully recalls a historical moment through literature.

"The Footloose American," by Brian Kevin

As an author back in 1963, Hunter S. Thompson enjoyed an advantage that Brian Kevin author of “The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America,” does not today.

That was the fact South America was an important part of President John F. Kennedy's foreign policy, whereas, ever since, the giant land continent to the south has fallen into something of a black hole.

When Thompson took off for a year of writing and life experience, he was after evidence that Kennedy was on the right path.

Launching into South America some 40 years later, Kevin has to come up with something matching that policy imperative.

What he came up with was the idea of shadowing Thompson's steps and doing a kind of compare and contrast project that often strays into a simple travelogue of his own ups and downs on the continent.

Alas, enough time has passed since Thompson's death that a brief explanation is necessary. He was the original purveyor of “Gonzo” journalism. It was a wild and wacky style that matched the time and his prime – the 1970s – in which he cast himself as a drug-addled, bald, hippy taking roundhouse swipes at the system and its flaws.

In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” Thompson delighted readers with manic and comic accounts of middle-American values and mores as seen through a prism distorted by LSD, peyote, speed, hard booze and anything else he could get his trembling hands on.

Thompson's writings about South America were not of the Gonzo type, rather straight accounts of what was going on with flickering hints of the emerging madman woven throughout.

It is Kevin's contention that a year on the southern continent helped bring out the Gonzo in Thompson's ensuing journalism.

Anyway, after reading “The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America,” (TFAFTHSTTASA) this reviewer can't help but think the largely Latin land mass might have benefited from a more Gonzo-like account by either of these two writers.

Given its low place on the totem pole of American foreign policy, it's no wonder the continent is largely “terra incognita” for most in the United States, and an entertaining, booze-swilling, drug-fueled romp might have done something to help Brian Kevin garner more attention for his effort.

Which is not to say TFAFTHSTTASA lacks merit or quality writing. It's brimming with both. Kevin not only writes well, he thinks well.

By way of example and contrast, Thompson wrote during the Cold War and his chronicle took a long, hard look at Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, which was designed to combat communist incursion through a combination of U.S.-financed good deeds and propaganda.

Whereas the Alliance and the Peace Corps were designed to combat negative impressions of the U.S. generated by Cuban information outfits, today's “Propaganda Affairs Section” of the State Department is stuck with the task, Kevin observes, of “fending off the American culture machine itself, the more pervasive and not always flattering elements of our society that manage to promote themselves whether we like it or not.”

The author endures an adventure like all adventures: ups and downs, hard lessons, and delightful surprises that he does not waste when turning his analytic eye and pen to transmitting intelligence about them.

We can only hope you care about his odyssey through Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil and think you should.