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Joseph Boyden reads from The Orenda at the Charles W. Stockey Centre

On Thursday 19 September Joseph Boyden will read from his new novel,The Orenda, at the Charles W. Stockey Centre. Joseph Boyden has a strong connection to this part of the world. His native roots, Ojibway Metis, as much as his Irish Scottish background, is a personal part of who he is. “I’m a Canadian”, says Joseph. Raised in a very Irish Catholic home, his father a military man, Joseph calls himself “a suburban boy” who spent all of his summers, with his family, on Beckwith Island and Christian Island on Georgian Bay. He still feels a strong connection to this place that was so special in the lives of his parents. To Joseph, as it is to so many of us, Georgian Bay is, in his own words, “a magical, a spiritual place, it is Ground Zero”. The Orenda is Joseph Boyden’s Georgian Bay novel, in which, he said, it was “difficult to capture the beauty of that place … this is where my heart is”. This is Georgian Bay in the 1600’s, and the landscape we follow in this novel is along the shoreline of Georgian Bay between Midland and the French River - the Sweet Water Sea that was the route of the native people, and the early explorers and settlers who came after.

My challenge with this review is how to write about a book that I want each of you read without knowing what is going to happen to the characters. For me some of the pleasure of reading is that discovery of an unknown story. Although, if you have read any of the many reviews published in newspapers and magazines this past week about The Orenda, you may already know than I’d have disclosed.

Joseph Boyden describes the pace of this novel as a headlong car chase, yet I found it a book that I wanted to hold back from reading as quickly as usual. I wanted to savour each short chapter - each perfectly crafted sentence.

The Orenda is told in three voices, a mature man, Bird, an Haudenosaunee warrior, a young girl, Snow Falls, who is Huron-Wendat, and a Jesuit priest, Christophe. Joseph Boyden writes as though he witnessed this time himself – using each of these narrators to tell us, in their own words, their story, as we move forward in time. This is a time of conflict among the native people of the region, and into this mix come the Jesuits – called crows by the native people. Bird describes one, “he walks among the dead and wounded like a bird that he is, pecking at the poor men’s foreheads, trying to gain something for himself from their dying bodies.” Of course, we realize the priest is blessing the dead, but we can also completely understand Bird’s interpretation - we’ve all seen the crows along the highway pecking at the dead.

The native people who were here before the rest of us did not know what the future would bring anymore than the Jesuits did. The people of the region had their own spiritual beliefs. One Jesuit reflects, “these savages believe that we all have within us a life force that is similar, if you will, to our own Catholic belief in the soul. They call this life force the orenda…what appals me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground.” I know I am not alone in feeling that there is something very spiritual in the rocks and the endless sky over the open water of Georgian Bay. The Jesuits, whether anyone believes they had any right to attempt to convert the native people or not, were men who believed in what they were doing. And this is what Joseph Boyden so perfectly conveys in this novel. The Jesuits did come, they did attempt to convert the native people to their ways and, as we all know, the consequences in the years that followed are tragic. As Joseph says in this book “the past and future are present.” But the future, our own time and the years in between, are in the far distance for the descendants of Bird, Snow Falls and Crow Christophe. Over a decade we witness the growth of the Jesuit community, the aging of Bird, and the maturity of Snow Falls.

This is a novel that explores love, loss, grief. There are times of peace, and travel, paddling canoes on the glittering water of the Sweet Water Sea, planting and harvesting the Three Sisters, and peaceful gatherings within the community. I learned about the rich culture of these people, their spiritual beliefs and their way of life. There are also many periods of warfare. Sleeps Long, tells Snow Falls, “We hurt one another because we’ve been hurt ... We kill one another because we have been killed …”. The notion of having to avenge a death is strong in this culture.

As third section of The Orenda begins three important questions are posed. “How do you keep going when all you loved has been lost? What role did I play in the troubles that surround me? Will I see my loved ones again?” Fundamental.

Many of us who read Three Day Road called it brilliant and brutal – and the same could be said of The Orenda – but I found the brutality more controlled, for lack of a better word, in this novel. Most of the novel is told in such a way that I did not find myself as emotionally involved with these characters as I might have expected. Not that I was not completely engaged – I was. But it was not until close to the end of the book, when the characters I had come to care for and know so intimately were in extreme danger, that I found myself brought to tears. I think this is one of the strengths of the novel. Reading without my emotions in turmoil I was reading clearly, captivated by the story, entranced by the writing and completely absorbed. That Joseph Boyden can write like this is a wonder – it is magnificent. I thought what it must have demanded of him to write this book, a book he said he’s “been wanting to write since he was a boy”. The Orenda is an important book for all of us. This book should win every literary award, in Canada and Internationally. I cannot imagine that a jury who reads this book will read anything else that is as perfectly written, and brilliantly told as The Orenda. It is also important to us as Canadians – to our native people, to those of us born here, and to those who came as immigrants. We are all Canadians, and no matter what we think of our shared history we do share it.

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