Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

 Some Spoilers Ahead

I have complicated feelings about this book. There are so many things it does well. The research is excellent. The complexity is top notch. The writing is good. On the other hand, the characters are weak. The story is often predictable. And there are issues with what happens to the female character. [Trigger warning]

First, the plot. The Orenda is set in Native North America, around the first settlement of New France - Champlain's death sets the beginning in the early 1630s. It is about misunderstanding, told through three main characters - a Jesuit priest, a Huron man, and an Iroquois girl. It goes through the first entrance of the Jesuits into Native culture, famines, pestilences, and the slow and rapid decline of different native groups.

The Jesuit priest is reluctantly accepted into a Huron village, while the Iroquois girl is more readily adopted into a Huron family. There are raids, skirmishes, the founding of a missionary village, planting seasons, and wars. Not necessarily in that order.

So, what's good about it? Well, looking at his acknowledgements, he's read pretty much exactly the history books I would have expected him to read, given the subject matter. I recognize many of the major arguments of those books coming up as plot points. This is great, but it's also a bit limiting. There was very little I was surprised by.

But he used his research well. There aren't the data dumps I get from some historical fiction, where details are strewn like petals to show the breadth of the author's research, instead of being there to enrich the story or the setting. And certainly that story may not be as familiar to most people as it is to people who had to read a bunch of books on the topic of Native/European relations as part of one of their comprehensive exams. So I may be overly picky.

What I do appreciate is the way that this book shows, not a two-way culture clash, but acknowledges deep divisions and cultural differences between native groups. The first section of the book is rife with misunderstandings of what the other two major characters are doing, and this isn't just the European misunderstanding the Native, or vice versa. No, this is as much the Iroquois misunderstanding the Huron as it is about their interactions with the Jesuit. (A note - the Jesuit calls them Huron or Iroquois, but the Huron man and Iroquois women identify themselves with individual tribes within those confederacies.)

The writing style is not obtrusive, and I was never discombobulated by it. Nor did I particularly notice it.

On the other side of the equation, as I've said, things felt rather predictable. Only one thing surprised me, near the end. And the characters are weak, and I think these two things are connected. Because the characters felt ill-drawn and largely devoid of any of those quirks of personality that make people spring to life, what they did felt like it was as scripted as what they said. These felt like cardboard figures on a vast scenery, and while that scenery was good, the lack of connection to people hindered my enjoyment.

And then there's Snow Falls, the main female character. One of my friends, when we were having a pre-book club chat about this book (the actual meeting is later in the week) about it, said that he was bothered that she was mostly there to be threatened with rape, threatened with rape, raped, have a baby, get poisoned, and die. I hadn't put it all together quite like that, but had a sense of unease that this put in stark perspective.

And, yeah. It's a problem. There is more to the character, but not a ton. Her struggles to not integrate into her adoptive family are interesting, but they are overshadowed by some other parts of her story. And in the end, her death seems to strike her adoptive father very lightly, even though he's been grieving his former family throughout the whole book, and we're repeatedly told how much he loves her. It's more than a little strange.

So, how do I feel about this book? It was worth a read, but I didn't love it. I think it will incite interesting discussions at the first meeting of our book club. There are some great aspects, and some not-so-great aspects. It's...interesting.

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