Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

When I was a kid, I used to dream regularly that I had been killed: not just killed, but beaten to death and left on the grounds of Chase Primary School, my elementary school.

Whether this is the root or the cause of my neuroses, I can't tell, but I have a deep antipathy to representations of violence. It's not that I'm phobic about them, or offended, or indeed squeamish, but they bump me out of the narrative and out of my immersion with the film or literature. Presumably I'm an outlier, making this a pathological distinction that marks me as ripe for culling from the herd, but so be it.

And so went my reading of Joseph Boyden's acclaimed novel The Orenda. I'm not sure that I disagree with a scintilla of the praise that has been accumulating around The Orenda, because I can tell that it's genuinely a novel to amaze. This is a historical novel that reads immediately and intimately while still being the product of exhaustive research; it presents its narrative from three quite distinct points of view, each one of which feels fully realized, and each one of which was fully capable of sustaining its own novel; it's a novel of community and place and faith, and all the ways in which those terms can be understood oppositionally; and most importantly (in my view) it's about life and death in the face of overlapping cataclysmic changes that intersect in terrifying ways.

But it's also a novel stuffed full of periodically horrifying torture, or promises of torture to come, or explicitly declared hope at being able to survive torture with pride.

Clearly my discomfort stems in large part from my absolute separation from the lifeways that Boyden's writing about: the Wendat (or Huron) and the Haudenosaunee are not my peoples, settler that I am, and so Boyden quite rightly isn't writing for my outsider sensibilities. Or rather, he is, and he's expecting that I'm going to feel like the outsider. If in general I was okay with graphic depictions of violence, then I'd be able to assess the extent to which this book is successful in what I take to be Boyden's aim, but the problem is that I'm not.

And I should say, too, that I anxiously appreciate Christina Turner's worry that "a narrative has been created around The Orenda that is more comforting than unsettling to settler Canada." We're better people for having appreciated this novel, we settlers, maybe, but our obligation to decolonize this place doesn't end with literary prizes and Christmas handovers of The Orenda to our fellow settlers, for them to donate to next year's charity book drive.

It's an amazing novel, and for now, I'm seeing myself as deficient for not being able to appreciate it properly: violence does that to me, and especially torture. Sue me.


theresa said…
Thank you for such an honest piece, Richard. Despite the directives of the CBC, et. al., we don't all necessarily have to read the same books. Different books speak to different people...

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