The life of a bookseller is not typically glamorous, but a couple of months ago I got to attend what for me was the equivalent of a star-studded, blockbuster Hollywood premiere. It was an invitation-only preview for a forthcoming novel, attended by more than a dozen colleagues from all over Puget Sound. We gathered to meet the author and share a drink (or two or three) with him and a few of his friends, who included John Vaillant (author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce), Annie Proulx (author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain), and Sherman Alexie (author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Blasphemy). I got some great tips about the NCAA basketball tournament from Alexie, heard gossip about junkets of yore from legendary editor Gary Fisketjon, and caught up with Nancy Pearl's latest reading recommendations. It was quite a night. The idea behind the whole thing, of course, was to get us booksellers excited about the new book so we'd share it with our customers when it came out, which is exactly what I'm doing. Don't tell the publishers, but they didn't need to wine and dine me to get me to do it. I loved the book anyway.
Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is set in the 17th century in what is now Canada, and its plot is set in motion when Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary there, is captured by a Huron warrior named Bird. The priest is carried back to the Huron village along with a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls, and each of the three takes it in turn to narrate the story from a very different point of view. Christophe is desperate to stay alive, but even more desperate to save savage souls; Bird wants to sustain and protect his people, whether by negotiation or by force; and Snow Falls must find a way to maintain her personal and cultural identity in an enemy land.
These characters bond and break and reconnect with each other in a series of shifting alliances driven by external events. There’s ongoing political machination by the French colonial government, drought that threatens food supplies, and inter-tribal hostility, but there’s also friendship, familial affection, and the shared pleasures of village life during an idyllic season. It’s a complete, thoroughly researched look at a fascinating time and place that’s just past the edge of familiarity.
What’s so refreshing about the novel is the way it normalizes the historical way of life of its First Nations characters. Their native culture is a basic ground against which the European interlopers seem bizarre and exotic, just as they must have at the time. Boyden captures a sense of the past much better by having his characters speak in a simple, almost contemporary conversational style rather than with the archaic, oracular diction that is the stock representation of “Indian-ness.” They aren’t a homogeneous bunch, either. Their beliefs, personalities, and opinions are as rich and varied as those of any group of people you’d meet in real life.
That clear, direct style makes The Orenda a fast-moving read that’s hard to put down, but be warned that it isn’t always pleasurable. It’s filled with episodes of brutal violence and torture that are all too historically accurate. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that these horrific acts aren’t gratuitous and that those who perpretrate them don’t come off as monsters but as complex human beings. Their values may be far removed from our own, but they’re intelligible nonetheless. The darkness Boyden unflinchingly examines makes his novel all the more illuminating.