This week five celebrity panellists gathered with host Jian Ghomeshi for Canada Reads, our country’s annual “title fight,” to decide on the book that all Canadians should read. The theme of this year’s debate could be particularly relevant to rabble readers: “What is the one novel that could inspire social change in this country?” After four days of debate, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda was crowned champion yesterday morning. And I feel weird about it.
Set in the 17th century in what is now Ontario and Quebec, The Orenda recounts the early days of French colonization and the downfall of the Wendat (Huron). (Note: spoilers ahead.) The novel is alternatingly told through the eyes of Bird (a Wendat warrior), Snow Falls (a Haudenosaunee girl adopted by Bird) and Christophe (a Jesuit missionary based on canonized martyr Jean de Brebeuf). The novel follows the interactions of the three central characters as the Wendat ally with the French and do battle with the Haudenosaunee. Quotidian scenes of daily life in Bird’s village are interspersed with detailed depictions of brutal torture perpetuated by Wendat and Haudenosaunee alike. Even before it won Canada Reads, The Orenda had earned praise from all corners of the literary world: it was nominated for both The Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award, and lauded by critics as “an epic tale,” “born a classic,” and a “magnificent literary beast.”
During his opening defence of The Orenda, Wab Kinew justified his choosing the book because “reconciliation with Indigenous nations is the biggest social justice issue awaiting confrontation” in Canada today. He is undeniably right. As I write this, the Mohawk of Tyendinaga are blockading a road in Ontario to demand a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. Yesterday, the National Energy Board approved the Enbridge Line 9 reversal, a decision that violates multiple treaties, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues to collect testimonies about residential schools (even though it had to threaten legal action to complete its mandate.) So while the other panellists vouched for the urgency of such issues as the environment, racism, immigrant alienation and gender discrimination, Kinew brought the most politically potent issue in Canada to the table when he chose The Orenda. It represents, as Stephen Lewis put it [during the debates], “the original injustice in the country.”
And yet, Boyden’s novel makes me uncomfortable. Now, you might argue that this is the point of good literature that tackles a complex issue. Speaking about Rawi Hage’s The Cockroach, panellist Samantha Bee argued that this book, and others like it, is meant to “put you in an uncomfortable place.” And one might think that I, and readers like me (i.e. white members of the settler population), should be made to feel discomfort when reading The Orenda. When we read books that unspool the narrative of Canada as a benevolent postcolonised nation founded on the hard work of pioneers and based on peaceful treaties with First Nations, and expose the violence of our country’s founding that is left out of school books — we are bound to get uncomfortable. It’s never fun to realize you’ve benefitted from the oppression of another group.
But Boyden’s novel doesn’t make me uncomfortable for that reason. There are plenty of books that do – Porcupines and China Dolls by Robert Arthur Alexie, for one, or Bev Sellars’s residential school memoir They Called Me Number One, or Thomas King’s recent popular history The Inconvenient Indian. And I do think that The Orenda is a well-written book with complex characters (although I found Boyden’s earlier books, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, to be more compelling). But I think a narrative has been created around The Orenda that is more comforting than unsettling to settler Canada.
My discomfort with this novel is two-pronged. First, as is a risk with any historical fiction, that this book will now be taken as historical fact. But the historical basis for the novel has been widely contested. Boyden’s primary source for his descriptions of the Jesuit-Wendat interactions in general and torture scenes in particular was the Jesuit Relations, a series of reports sent back to France by the early missionaries. To say that these reports were biased would be an understatement—they were largely propaganda documents meant to raise funds to continue the Jesuit mission. In her historical review of The Orenda, Peggy Blair notes that the Jesuit Relations dramatize Haudenosaunee torture practices while making scant mention of the tortures the French carried out on their prisoners; similarly, they barely discuss Haudenosaunee clan mothers because the French saw women as powerless. And yet, The Orenda is already being taken as historical doctrine. In his review of the novel, Montreal Gazette critic Ian McGillis argued that the book should take “its rightful place on history course lists at every high school and university in the country.”
My second issue with the uptake of The Orenda is the way it portrays the Wendat as the architects of their own demise. In the novel, the conflict between the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee is portrayed as largely baseless, arising from an eye-for-an-eye mentality that spurs each side to attack and torture the other year after year. At one point, Bird reneges on a treaty with the Haudenosaunee, wrecking a planned peace deal and setting up the final battle between the two nations (which the Wendat ultimately lose). And as Hayden King notes in his review of the book, “the unnamed Sky People who open each section of the book observe the carnage below and conclude the grim history was pre-determined partly because of the selfishness, arrogance and short-sightedness of the Huron.”
I’m not arguing that we should eschew all narratives that depict colonialism as complicated. Of course it was (and is) a complex, violent and thorny process. Narratives that portray the colonizers as the sole actors and portray Indigenous people as passive victims are also harmful. But what are the implications of a book that depicts an Indigenous nation as responsible for its own destruction? What are the implications for this book being portrayed as a novel that will incite social change in this country? At best, I think this alleviates European historical actors of their responsibility for the harms of colonialism. (In his review, Charles Foran of The Globe and Mail declared it “fresh and new and free of colonial residue.”) At worst, I think the novel could be too easily extrapolated to a contemporary narrative that blames Indigenous people and communities for the struggles they face – which is exactly not what we (whoever we is) should be doing.
Joseph Boyden is a gifted author who creates tangible, heartbreaking lifeworlds. The Orenda is a good book. But it’s not a novel to change Canada and it’s not, despite Wab Kinew’s eloquent defence of it, the tool for reconciliation.
Hayden King’s review in Muskrat Magazine contains a more detailed literary analysis of Boyden’s novel — read it here.