History class has rarely been so fun. But rarely has the teacher been anyone like Joseph Boyden, the Ontario-born, Jesuit-educated, New Orleans-based self-described “mutt” of Scottish, Irish and Anishinaabek heritage whose new novel, The Orenda, is destined to be one of the biggest books of the season. A brilliant and bloody dissection of Canada’s early days, it follows on the heels of two other acclaimed historical novels by the author: His first book, Three Day Road, set just after the First World War, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; his second, Through Black Spruce, nabbed the Giller.
In The Orenda, he traces the stories of three characters surviving in the harsh Great Lakes region during the mid-17th century: Snow Falls, an Iroquois girl whose family is murdered; Bird, the Huron warrior who did that particular bit of murdering and adopts Snow Falls as his daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary sent forth into the wilderness to live with the Huron. The novel is measured and symphonic, pulling that trio of narratives together while exploring an array of thematic and historical concerns. But it is also explosive and unpredictable, erupting into horrific violence at one moment, pausing for deep humanity the next. It is a book, Boyden says, meant to set the record straight – to make us understand First Nation societies of the time more clearly, to make us more fully register the realities of this land before Europeans made it theirs.
In conversation, Boyden is boyish and charming, quick to laugh, but just as quick to turn the discussion into a serious exploration of racism in Canada, or the country’s environmental record, or his support of Idle No More. During a telephone interview from New Orleans, where he lives with his wife, novelist Amanda Boyden, and where he was readying himself for a fall tour that will include events across Canada, he worked through his book’s darker concerns, including its graphic descriptions of the torture performed by the Huron and Iroquois, and expressed his dismay at contemporary society’s darker corners, too.
But through it all, he maintained an almost giddy excitement, like a professor who knows the lecture he’s about to give is a barnburner. Or a writer eager to show us our past as we’ve never seen it.
You’ve called this the book you were meant to write. Why?
It’s a book that comes from being educated by Jesuits, spending so much of my childhood in Georgian Bay and knowing the story of the Jesuits and the Huron, that initial conflict between Europeans and First Nations – so much of our history that so many don’t know and so many got wrong. Brian Moore wrote Black Robe, and I shan’t speak poorly of the dead, but he got so much of the First Nations side of it wrong. I had a strong desire to correct that, to show that these were cultures that were as complex, as complicated, as deep as any culture in the world at the time.
People assume that First Nations ran around in the forest in loincloths and had very little in terms of material wealth, and didn’t have complex religious or political or social structures. You look at the Huron (the Wendat people) or the Iroquois (the Haudenosaunee) and they’re incredibly complex agricultural societies that had the comforts of being able to make it through winter, and to develop their religion and their social structures. The Iroquois, obviously known as great warriors, also created the Great Law of Peace, which the American Constitution was basically birthed out of. I wanted to show that these places were already established when the first Europeans came over. There was no utopia – I definitely didn’t want to paint a picture of the noble savage. But certainly things were very complex and organized and structured.
When you were researching this book, how did your own thinking about these First Nations change?