It is an unusual pleasure to read a book that makes me, by turns, happy and furious. This speaks volumes about the ability of a writer to create characters a reader can love and hate – and even more still that one can feel both for a single character. Recently that book has been The Orenda by Joseph Boyden.
The cover, when I first looked at it, didn’t make sense to me. But upon closer inspection I realized it was birch trees. It’s beautiful and understated, just like much of the book.
It takes place in the beginnings of modern Canada – then called “New France” by some. We focus on three characters; Christophe, a Jesuit priest who has come to convert the “savages”. Bird, a warrior of the Wendat people and Snow Falls, a girl of the Haudenosaunee who Bird has taken as his new daughter after he has brutally killed her family. The book is a little difficult to get into, at first, but then we learn more about the culture of Bird’s people and the rhythms of their lives. We learn the reasons behind Bird’s abduction of Snow Falls and how she eventually becomes part of the Wendat. As for Christophe, his genuine desire to fulfill his mission: to save the souls of a people he views as backward and sinful, is at once terrifying and saddening. Saddening because we know how it turns out in the end. This is the part that makes me angry – that the Crows, as Bird calls them, end up having so much influence and control over the fates of so many indigenous people, but at the same time, it’s not entirely Christophe’s fault – because he’s doing things he believes he should, just as Bird and Snow Falls do.
I won’t get into any spoilers, but rest assured that this one is going on my favourite’s list. Boyden’s writing is excellent – I love when you can get absorbed into the story and not notice the mechanics at work.