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book review

Joseph Boyden’s new novel, The Orenda, is profoundly researched and told in elegant, muscular prose.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

In a corner of 1970s suburban Toronto, the martyrdom of Jean de Brébeuf continued to resonate centuries after the fact. At Blessed Trinity elementary, our Grade 8 retreat was to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, near Midland. The Jesuit mission, co-established by Brébeuf in 1639, was the first European settlement in Ontario. Now it is a historical park.

At Brébeuf College high school, the resonances deepened. A statue of our towering patron – Jean de Brébeuf was over six feet tall – greeted us in the front entrance. His handsome head was bowed in saintly piety, and anticipatory forbearance. Our school crest included the bull, taken from his family coat-of-arms, and our summer camp was called Ekon, after the name the Hurons assigned him: "he who carries a heavy load."

But it was the gory details of his 1649 martyrdom at the hands of the Iroquois that held our teenage imaginations. For the crime of wanting to bring Christian values to the New World, the priest suffered abominably: fingernails torn off, feet severed, tongue cut out. And yet, not once during three days of torture did he cry for mercy.

So admiring were the Iroquois, they ate his heart and drank his blood, even before he was actually dead. They were hoping to gain some of his valour, but what happened was far better: thousands, we were informed, converted in the wake of his display of courage and willingness to die for Christ. It was quite a story. Mostly, the tale was of Jesuit fortitude and devotion, and the priests who taught us about Jean de Brébeuf, including one who claimed to own and treasure a bone fragment from the corpse of the martyr, whose grave was discovered in 1956, were in the business of molding Catholics.

Back then, Brébeuf College School was largely boys of Irish and Italian extraction. No Natives, as far as I can recall, were enrolled, or ever invited to speak to us about this history – from their perspective.

Joseph Boyden attended the same schools as I did. His extraordinary new novel doesn't only reflect a shared Catholic upbringing, with its emphasis on bloody sacrifice – the martyrdom of Brébeuf was forever linked, in my mind at least, with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – or a formative early immersion in a primordial Canadian narrative. More significantly, The Orenda brings the two versions of that essential narrative into the same classroom. Better still, the novel returns all parties to their time and place and grants them the dignity of fully realized, and innately complex, identities and agendas. No pious statues of Catholic martyrs, or fevered images of cannibal savages, survive the scrutiny.

The novel opens in winter, and with bloodshed. The great Wendat – i.e. Huron – elder and warrior known as Bird massacres a party of Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, and kidnaps a young girl. She is called Snow Falls, and Bird, haunted by the slaughter of his own wife and children at the hands of his arch-enemy years before, insists on making her a replacement child. "She contains something powerful," he decides.

The warrior also takes as prisoner a "Crow," or Jesuit, who the Haudenosaunee party had been escorting home to torture to death. Though Bird finds him "big, thick through the chest and clearly strong," he asks, "is he not the most awkward man I've ever met?" Snow Falls, carried by the big Jesuit through the snow, is neither grateful nor impressed. When the "other prisoner" bends over her, "he smells so bad that I want to throw up, his breath stinking like rotted meat." She wants to kill Bird in revenge and be rid of the foul-smelling Crow.

The captive Jesuit is equally dismayed by the company he must keep, especially their violence. "Forgive me, Lord, but I fear they are animals in savagely human form," he thinks. Just a few pages into The Orenda, and already the cultural disconnects, the dynamics of collective and individual needs, are set up. So too are the alternating narrative voices of Bird, the Crow and Snow Falls, brilliantly choreographed by Boyden. The tale that unfolds is vivid, harrowing and without pity for those caught up in it.

That tale is of the prolonged war between cousin nations, and the epidemics that ended with the decimation and dispersal of the Hurons after 1649. It is an epic worthy of Herodotus or Sima Qian, and by its ardour and high seriousness The Orenda declares it an equal to any ancient Greek or Chinese account of empires rising and falling.

With most of this history, Boyden lets the story speak for itself. The Orenda is profoundly researched and told in elegant, muscular prose. Even where the narrative feels overstuffed, including an account of "the Creator's Game," the raucous, full-contact antecedent of lacrosse, the bulk has its purposes.

Interestingly, the author most betrays his allegiances with matters spiritual, contrasting the narrow, proscribed Christian tenets with the sweeping native life force known as the orenda. "What appalls 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," the Crow notes.

Later, discussing theology with the healer Gosling, the Jesuit admits he believes the planet exists for humans. To which Gosling replies, "But there is nothing in the world that needs us for its survival. We aren't masters of the earth. We're the servants."

Boyden, already our most eloquent chronicler of the bush, nestles even deeper into the Canadian Shield. Unlike Three Day Road or the Giller-prize winning Through Black Spruce, there is no other setting in The Orenda. All the world is bush, and it is where we must situate ourselves as small or large spirits.

Great art can't help drawing us into one longhouse, one great force, and then daring us to deny the commonalities. To declare The Orenda fresh and new and free of colonial residue would be accurate, but arid as praise.

Better to call it a great, heartbreaking novel, full of fierce action and superb characters and an unblinking humanity. I was awed and distressed by Bird's tenacity and bloody-mindedness and touched, and then crushed, by the fate of Snow Falls.

To my surprise, I even came around to appreciating the Crow, whose real-life model stood, statue-still, in our Jesuit high school. His inadequate orthodoxies and absurd racial superiority were cultural inheritances. But his courage, compassion, and loyalty were of his own individual making. In the end, he showed himself a great spirit as well.

Charles Foran is the author of 10 books, including Mordecai: The Life and Times.