When Joseph Boyden’s latest book, The Orenda, finally became available in the U.S., I read it that week. But I haven’t written about it until now, because I didn’t know what to say. It was a hard book to read, and even harder to process.
Set in the 17th century, the Orenda has three narrators: a Jesuit priest, a Huron warrior, and a Haudenosaunee child. It contains numerous scenes of the violence and torture that characterized life in that time and place. But that is not what made the book challenging for me. Boyden brought all three narrators to life in a way that made each sympathetic despite their involvement in events that are almost unthinkable today. Although the violence was extreme, it was handled as delicately as the subject matter would allow without diminishing its significance.
My first exposure to fatalism was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles in high school. I hadn’t experienced such a sense of the inevitability of pointless tragedy in a story since. In the Orenda, you know before you start that the story ends in genocide. Even if you were completely unfamiliar with the history, the early chapters make it clear. As each narrator relates the events of the same day, their completely different understanding of what occurred makes it clear that peaceful resolution is not possible. As if that weren’t enough, the mystical woman Gosling draws a direct line connecting the raid that killed the Huron warrior’s family to his actions at the beginning of the book and on to the ultimate destruction of his people.
Inevitability is a strange theme for a novel about souls. Orenda, at least loosely, means soul. Everyone in the book defines it differently. The Jesuit, who wants to save the individual souls of the indigenous, but only serves to hasten their destruction, adopts the native word to describe the Christian soul. The Huron mean something much broader by it. They use orenda to refer to the spiritual energy or power of all things. In their quest to dominate trade routes, they collectively lose their soul. Individuals who join the Jesuit sacrifice their spiritual connection to their people without gaining new faith. The orenda, it seems, is destined to be a lost thing. And I’m not sure what to do with that.