I’m delighted to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another thoughtful and insightful guest book reviewer. Cheryl Finch is an editor in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in non-fiction manuscript development; website copywriting and SEO; online article writing; and content marketing. Cheryl can be reached at email@example.com.
Set in the mid-1600s, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is a fascinating and often harrowing account of life during the French colonization of New France, when warring Huron and Iroquois nations fiercely battled for control of the fur trade, and resolute Jesuit missionaries were determined to convert their Huron allies to Christianity.
The Orenda chronicles the experiences of Bird, a Wendat (Huron) warrior; Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary. As the story unfolds, Bird has led a small war party out to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughters, who were killed by the Haudenosaunee. Christophe is delivered to Bird’s temporary camp as part of the Wendat’s crucial trade arrangement with the French colonists, and Snow Falls is captured after Bird and his warriors attack a Haudenosaunee hunting party, killing her family. Christophe and Snow Falls are brought back to Bird’s village as captives.
Thus begins an uneasy and forced association among the three. They mistrust each other, but they also need each other. They feel superior to each other, but they also envy each other. They have many differences, yet they share common drivers: loyalty to family, spiritual conviction, the will to survive. And they are united in their fear of brutal torture and slow death by their current or future captors.
The Orenda is narrated alternately in the first person by Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe themselves, each character speaking directly to a loved one with the freedom and honesty accorded to only the most trusted of confidantes. They reveal their intentions, motivations and knowledge, giving us, the readers, a fully informed understanding of their conduct. We see that each character has virtues and flaws; each character is truly human, worthy of our understanding and empathy.
The characters themselves do not have the benefit of this insight about one another – they see the “what” but don’t know the “why”. They must simply interpret each others’ actions in the context of their own experiences and belief systems. Incorrect assumptions and misunderstood behaviour foster suspicon, judgment and intolerance. Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe slowly grow to accept, and eventually appreciate, respect, even care for one another, but this is a long and arduous process made all the more difficult by language barriers, religious differences and subjective frameworks.
Can The Orenda inspire social change? In some ways, things are no different today than they were for Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe 400 years ago. In both the national and international contexts, people of diverse cultures, belief systems, lifestyles, customs and languages live together but don’t necessarily understand or respect each other, resulting in misinterpretation, judgment and prejudice. Warring nations fiercely battle for economic and religious control, often resorting to ritual brutality rooted in tradition and vengeance. Change will only be possible if we make the effort to listen to each other, consider differing viewpoints, and understand the “why” behind the “what”. We must focus on our similarities rather than our differences, and learn to empathize. We must recognize that every human being is capable of great compassion and extreme cruelty, depending on past experience and present circumstance.
These are not quick or easy undertakings. Important change takes significant time and effort. But if we don’t start, it will never happen. The Orenda closes with the words “Now is what’s most important … the past and the future are present”. This book certainly has the potential to change Canada and even the world, if we choose to take its lessons to heart.
Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Cheryl is the first – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”