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.

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