Finished this book: The Orenda (by Joseph Boyden)

The Orenda. Well. This is the third book I’ve read on my vacation, and what a change from the first two! I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a while, having peripherally noted some controversy (or maybe just contention?) when Wab Kinew was defending it for CBC’s Canada Reads. Too colonial? Too graphic? Too Canadian? Not Canadian enough? Who defines Canadian anyway? But I filed it away mentally as I’ll read this someday and figure it out for myself…

A few years ago, desperate for something to read, I had reluctantly picked up Boyden’s Through Black Spruce.  I had judged it by its cover and avoided it until then, but once I got started, I fell into that book and neglected my real life until I was done.Because of that, I was prepared to love The Orenda as well, and so when the friend with whom I’m staying on vacation handed it to me, I was excited but… I don’t know. It felt kind of heavy for a vacation book. But if not now, when, right? So I started it last Saturday before bed and finished it last night. And wow. Yes, an amazing book, an amazing story.

There are three narrators, which is a technique I tend to like, especially when they have different worldviews, as is the case here. Also, a lot of historical novels go overboard on the historical detail (“Look how much research I’ve done! I can describe the buttons on each coat with precision and accuracy! This is exactly how they prepared each dish!”) but in The Orenda, the historical details support the story rather than overwhelming it. I found the characters and relationships believable, and so it made sense to me that they did the things they did. Sustainable, well-developed characters who grow and change over time (rather than just serving a plot) are another one of my favourite things.

This was not an easy book to read. It contains much joy and much pain, love and loyalty and war and disease and torture and faith and friendship. But also, the context of colonialism in the story itself, in the writing of the book, in the reading of the book, in the debates (discussions?) about the book, in my life as a settler in Treaty One territory, in my ignorance of what territory I’m on as I vacation here in Ottawa, in the history learned in school and then unlearned and relearned over time… All of these things also informed my reading of the book, and my thinking about it when I had set it aside to do other things. Yes, this is fiction. But the good books–the ones that stick in my head and make me think about them during and after–no matter how fictional–to me, these books also feel very true. That is very much the case for this one. It takes the huge sweep of history and gives me particulars: this is what it could have been like for these people, in this place, at that moment in time. This is a detailed piece which somehow still points to the whole, without actually trying to encompass it.

Reading this book was time well spent. I think it will stay with me for a long time. ISBN 978-0-14-317416-5.

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