Seems that not many people know their North American history before our Revolutionary War of the late 1700s, and certainly not much before the so-called French and Indian War at mid-century. This historical novel covers a timeframe over a century before both events—that of the first half of the 1600s—set in the Great Lakes area between what is now Lake Huron and Ontario, Canada. It is the original flash point for most emerging conflicts that still burn us today:
Women and their fashionable beavers.
But don't laugh; The Orenda is about as funny as a spiked mace to the forehead. There is joy, love, and happiness, but this is a tale of sorrow. And, how could it not be? The Wendat(2) went from a tribal Confederacy in 1615 of 30,000 to 300 people by 1649, when this novel concludes. It is a 1st-person narrative from 3 individuals passing around the verbal spotlight throughout the work. There are a few literary interruptions including a short prelude and postude from Aataentsic the Sky Woman(3), or maybe just an anonymous elder sitting around the longhouse fire. There are no actual historical figures represented except a brief meeting with Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) to cohere a treaty for trading beaver furs for Iron Age technology. This is strictly a mocassins-on-the-ground story.
It starts off in a running battle between hunting parties in which Bird—kinda a General Patton to the Wendat—takes away a captive Jesuit priest slurringly called Crow, and a pre-pubscent Hodenosaunee(4) girl later named Snow Falls, but not before killing her mother, father, and siblings in front of her. Bird saves the Crow because he is loosely attached to their trading partners—the French—and the girl to be raised as his daughter for revenge from last year's death of his wife and child at the hands of his enemy. These are the novel's three protagonists. They see the action of the novel from very different sets of eyes, and they also move the chapters with checkerboard leaps and a spattering of side stories, like the appearance of Gosling, the female shaman of the tribe and later Snow Falls' teacher and Bird's new wife.
As if the perils of the natural world were not enough, the Wendat and Hodenosaunee are devastated by the diseases of the Europeans sweeping through on two separate epidemcs of influenza, measles, and smallpox, cutting their numbers by more than half(5). Then there's crop failure due to lack of rain, sub-zero winters, and continuous skirmishes with the fur trading rivals.
But their biggest threat of all is the most insideous: Pere Christophe the Crow's constant cawing about the Great Voice in Heaven and to "collect more souls"(p.297) for His adoration. It confuses the villiagers hearing that their beliefs are false; that they should switch their allegiance by eating the Holy Son's body and drink His blood in a ritualized, cannibal ceremony, the words of which they do not understand. And, even though the Jesuit learns language and customs, he divides the community and takes their focus off what should matter more: their physical survival, not a promised one. If Crow thought ahead with more insightful, humanistic vison, he might realize his Catholic conversions cut the Wendat off at the roots, adrift without connection to the Earth that sustains them, and untethered from their tribal history which is essential for their own, endemic tradtions. For Crow is not without compassion or empathy for the people he's lived, ate, and slept with, and he's intelligent enough to realize the Wendat's religion serves up really the same afterlife comfort and reward as his beliefs. Unfortunately, he's a fanatic and cannot see past the dogmatic blinders belted to him by the self-serving Cardinals of France.
And all France wants is furs. Beaver furs.
The major relationship in the novel is between Bird and Snow Falls. As temulchous as it starts--a captive, Snow Falls rightly hates him, pissing in his bed and cutting off a finger while Bird sleeps--yet through all the adversity, it ends in a true, heartfelt love between Father and Daughter.
The Orenda is a powerful work. It's characters will haunt you for a long time, especially since the sympathic immersion is for the losing side of this terribly important conflict. Author Boyden doesn't weigh opinions, but tries to keep true to the human nature of these clashing cultures and inveterate rivilaries. The blame baton is handed off to the indifference of commerce and to what degrees people delude themselves and others to get what they desire. In this sense, micro is macro, considering the further history of Native Americans at the hands of the Europeans.
Or, as Jessica Rabbit says, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way."(6)
3)She's the goddess responsible for the creation of all human beings, but especially the Iroquois and Wendat, who developed into bitter enemies, similar to Aataentsic's daughter who bore 2 twins: Tharonhiawagon the good one and Tawiskanon who came out her side, killing her, to be the bad one. Since adversaries shared the same creation myth to the point of this split and therefore hereditarily linked, one could say these Native Americans devoured themselves; however, that would dispel the huge part played by the exponentialy-growing mob of Europeans encouraging and supporting their hostilities. Fifty years after this novel ends—1700—the invading Palefaces had reached 250,000; by 1750, 1,250,000.