Seen from the air, northern Ontario is a patchwork of lakes and ponds and rivers—a spectacle that’s particularly vivid at sunset, when even the streams that braid the land flare silver. It’s a place of harsh extremes—lush summers, bitter winters—and of intricate cultural and ecological connections, and it’s well known to Joseph Boyden. It’s where he spent his childhood summers, visiting his Anishinabe mother’s relatives, and it figures prominently in all three of his novels: Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce, and the new effort that’s already being hailed as his masterpiece, The Orenda.
In 2008, when Through Black Spruce was published, Boyden revealed that it was the second in a three-part exploration of First Nations lives, set in the present and in the not-so-distant past. The Orenda is not the culmination of his plan, however; for that, we’ll have to wait. Instead, it spins us back to the middle of the 16th century, when French expansion in North America was exacerbating pre-existing hostilities between the Iroquois and Huron nations, and when European-introduced plagues were decimating the indigenous population. But it’s far from a simple black-and-white (or red-and-white) picture. Instead, Boyden’s intertwined story line—as rich and complicated as the land it comes from—looks at the cultural interplay between three conflicting world-views, two exemplified by the novel’s three narrators, the other embodied by a mysterious female shaman named Gosling.
Christophe is a Jesuit missionary—a fanatic, yes, but one bent on learning the ways of the new land in which he finds himself. The adolescent Snow Falls is an Iroquois captive of the Huron, intent on avenging the deaths of her parents; Bird is her Huron captor, who in time comes to love her as a daughter. Christophe, a de facto emissary of the fur trade, represents the emerging industrial world; Snow Falls and Bird are agriculturalists, whose people compete for land and resources; Bird’s enigmatic lover Gosling embodies the comparatively pacifistic hunter-gatherers that are Boyden’s ancestors. And as the writer points out, their conflicts are not solely the stuff of historical fiction.
“Certainly, I wanted this novel to have contemporary undertones to it,” he explains, reached at home in New Orleans. “And if you look at today, what’s going on is exactly that. It’s the technological world—our advanced mechanical world—in direct conflict with our natural world, and we’re killing it, you know. I see this as being the beginning, this introduction of people who destroy themselves in pursuit of enriching themselves. They’re blinded by that, and I think that’s a really strong contemporary theme that I see all over the place.
“I didn’t want the reader to jump into this novel thinking, ‘Oh, this is historical and it’s removed from me,’ because I think that good historical novels do the opposite,” he adds. “They speak about the contemporary world, and I certainly hope that this one does, in its own way.”
Boyden points to the ecologically disastrous development of the Alberta tar sands as the modern-day equivalent of the fur trade. “It’s so shortsighted, and nobody really wants it, and yet somehow it’s become our number one agenda,” he says. One difference, of course, is that these days North American brutality is outsourced; if torture goes on, it happens at “black sites” in Poland or Morocco or Yemen. At the time of The Orenda, however, both European and indigenous North American nations commonly employed the public, ritualized bestowing of pain as a means of establishing hierarchy and social control.
Boyden doesn’t hold back from depicting the brutality of the era in The Orenda, and his honesty has met a mixed response. “The few reviews I’ve seen have been very good so far, but they’ve all hit on the violence,” he notes, referring to the book’s graphic scenes of blinding, bloodletting, and mutilation. “But I’m like, ‘Well, look at our world!’ Look at the violence of 100,000 people in Syria being murdered over the last couple of years, and now with poison gas? In the great scheme of things, the Huron and Iroquois wars were just running skirmishes.”
Boyden’s new work does make for uncomfortable reading. Some might not buy his argument that in First Nations culture torture was a spiritual exchange between victim and tormentor, part of a culture of “mourning warfare” that from the outside seems no less barbaric than the eye-for-an-eye pieties of European and Middle Eastern monotheism. But The Orenda’s brutal passages, which are few in relation to its more lyrical moments, are necessary if we are to understand that North America was in a state of profound upheaval even before the first French ships sailed up the St. Lawrence. And they’ll prove useful in comprehending a planned future volume in which Gosling’s animist world—home to the omnipresent spirits that give The Orenda its name—will be explored in more depth.
“I do see a companion piece,” Boyden reveals. “I’d love to play more with the idea of organic magic—or religious magic, I guess I’d call it, Native religious magic. I have lots of friends, elders at Attawapiskat, up in Fort Albany, who talk about how when the white people came we could do things that would surprise and shock them. And the Jesuits write about it too, which is really neat. They can’t figure out some of these what they call ‘tricks’ or ‘trickery’ that the Indian shamans perform.”
Whether telling Gosling’s story will push back the completion of the Road/Spruce trilogy, Boyden doesn’t say. And perhaps his readers won’t mind. Either way, we’ll be treated to at least two more books as part of his ongoing project of developing a singular literary style while explaining First Nations culture and history to outsiders, and that’s no bad thing.