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?
I knew right away that it would be too easy to paint the Jesuit, Christophe, as the bad guy. I really wanted to make sure that my characters felt real and complex. One of the biggest things I had to deal with was the ritual torture that the Huron and Iroquois practised on one another, to try to come to terms with that and figure that out. And then I realized, as I was writing, that the Spanish Inquisition was in full tilt at the time, so this is not just some kind of heathen sauvage thing. The two societies treated torture in absolutely different ways, though. The Christians in Europe tortured to belittle and to demean and to punish. The Huron and the Iroquois tortured each other to honour and possess the power of the enemy. Two very different world views emerged.
People have remarked that this is the perfect book to follow the Idle No More movement. And sure, in a sense – this is a novel about First Nations. But beyond that connection, is The Orenda especially resonant in this moment?
I'm happy that people have made that connection. Idle No More didn't come out of nowhere. It comes out of people who've been truly disenfranchised in their own homes. Any good historical novel is going to feel contemporary, thematically. You look at this novel, and think about immigration, who you allow in, who you don't. The Huron allow in the ones who ultimately end up destroying them, because the Huron aren't perfect either: They needed the trade, and how much greed was involved in that? Look environmentally – you wipe out all the furs and your economy is gone. It's like the oil sands.
I understand the Idle No More connection is one you're happy to see made, but it still feels a bit hazy.
I would never try to make that connection. I could, if I had the time and the energy, trace the route between where my novel ends and Idle No More begins – because it's not over, it's just quiet right now. First Nations youth are the fastest-growing population in our country, and they're not going anywhere. If I could make one reader look at a contemporary First Nations person a little bit differently, that would thrill me. Once a reader said she gave her dad a copy of one of my books, and he was kind of a racist dude toward native people. And after he read that book, he was much less so – he began to see them as three-dimensional.
There's a point in the book where the sort of omniscient narrator, who introduces the novels's sections, asks how one keeps going when one has lost everything. Then that narrator says, "Or perhaps the question is this: What role did I play in the troubles that surround me?" That felt almost like a moral imperative: You now must examine what role you played. Is that a central concern for you?
I carefully put that there, because I don't want to present First Nations as always being victimized. No one's purely the victim. Actually, I shouldn't say that. My wife was purely a victim when she was horribly raped and left for dead. But when it comes to big cultural movements, the Huron played a role in their demise, and they know that. The English and the French and Dutch all did, too. Just the acceptance of responsibility is really important. Certainly we got the short end of the stick. Disease, for instance: There were 30,000 Huron when the Jesuits arrived; within 10 years, there were 10,000. There is that, which is just brutal and unfair. But this idea of accepting responsibility for something not going the way it should have is something I think everyone should do.
The book is a kind of democratization of trauma and loss, a long sequence of trading things back and forth – you do this to me and my family, so I'll do this to you and yours. Can a story like this, told this way, spread that sense of sadness, of loss, further, so that readers can share that pain, too?
Well, maybe not share it, but understand it a little bit better. How do you go on when you've lost everything? If we as contemporary readers look back and say, "We really screwed some of these people, didn't we, when we first arrived?" That's a lesson I didn't want to bang people over the head with, but I want the reader to be able to empathize with the characters.
Can that also become a moment of optimism for us as a broader society now? If we look at what we've lost, through our own fault, can we find a way to move on from that?
That would be amazing. But when I read the newspaper comments sections online, I realize that the racism is far heavier in Canada than I ever wanted to imagine. I think the average thinking, caring, emotive person can learn a bit of a lesson from reliving our history even if it is in fiction, which can sometimes have a greater truth. Maybe somebody will read this and say, "Wow, maybe this kind of trauma doesn't really go away. Maybe this trauma on such a mass scale does resonate through generations."
Do you think that a movement like Idle No More, despite all its successes, can actually propagate more racism?
I don't think people are made racist because of a political movement. I think people are forced to examine their beliefs and their motivations. Like my friend DJ NDN from A Tribe Called Red, he is fighting a good fight in Ottawa to get a football team called the Nepean Redskins to change their name because he is an Anishinabe man and he finds it horribly racist. You should see the racists that crawl out of the woodwork. These people are coming out just to scream at him. I think Idle No More forces us to examine our motivations, our belief systems, our systems of commentary. I don't think it's going to make racists – but it will draw them out. And maybe it's time to draw out that kind of poison, so we can excise it.
You've talked much about how your First Nations heritage is but one part of who you are.
I'm a mutt and very proud of it. I'm proud to have Irish blood and Ojibwa blood and Scottish blood.
Christophe is the first Western character in a novel of mine who's been a protagonist. I think that they're coming. I think there will be some really good mutt characters in the next novel. I hope and think I'm continuing to grow as a writer. I've got room to grow still, and lots of stories.