The Orenda by Joseph Boyden was a perfect pick for the 2014 Canada Reads selection. It appeals to me both as a reader and a history major. It brings a greater depth to the inter-relationship between the Huron, the Iroquois, the French explorers/traders, and the Jesuit missionaries during the 17th century. You come face to face with people of engaged in power dynamics. The characterization is so strong, that you are able to identify with individuals trying to live their lives with their conception of integrity, cope with their demons or sometimes with the belief that the end justifies the means. I was able to empathize or gain a better understanding of people who have been characterized as good or evil, depending on the historical representation you choose to adopt. Stunning examples of helplessness, cruelty, resilience and tenacity stay with you long after the book is finished.
One of the things that I always find startling is the intensity of the cruelty that human beings inflict upon each other: The Huron and Iroquois Nations and the tradition of “caressing” or torturing has been used to characterize the First Nations peoples as savages in history books. Yet it is something that is commonplace in human interaction when faced with whoever is perceived as “the enemy” of the day. Romans throwing people to be devoured by hungry lions, the Early Christian crucifying, the brutality during the Crusader, the genocide in WWII, Rwanda and Bosnia, capital punishment existing in the 21st century, debating the merits of torture in Guantanamo Bay – all examples of human beings making a conscious decision to treat other human beings as less than human. It is very difficult to characterize any one group as “savage” when the savagery has been embraced so readily throughout history.
At one point, Fox, one of the main characters makes the observation “..now he knows the pain I have suffered and from watching me for so long that this pain never really goes away, just wanes and rises like the moon…”(p.313) Is the pain of the human experience the reason for the savagery? Is the orenda or human soul the reason for the moments of greatness when a person is able to sacrifice themselves to save someone else, to find their voice to defend basic human rights, to show kindness because she can or emerge beyond loss without malice?
I met a teacher at Camp Elphinstone that chose this book for all of the secondary students in her school to read. Not all students would be able to read the text independently, however if ever there is a great text to make accessible and provoke discussion of our shared roots as Canadians, it is this one.