The Orenda: Ambivalent

*The Orenda* is well plotted historical fiction with reasonably complex characters, but its thematic questions are muddy. The plot, narrated from the three, alternating first person perspectives of Bird (the warrior), Snow Falls (the damsel) and Christophe (the Jesuit) has a classic development. In a three act structure the plot introduces our three characters and their relationships, sets the conflicts and sees the climax and resolution. The structure appropriately mirrors what Boyden has setup as a climactic moment in indigenous-settler relationships – that is, the historical period narrated is imagined as a “tipping point,” to borrow from another Canadian writer. The “resolution” bleeds into the reader present with a concluding paragraph from the chorus of the novel who reminds the reader that while these events took place in the historical past, the relationships/resonances continue.

The chorus also makes the argument that what appears from the present as obvious mistakes on the part of Wendat, were not at all obvious at the time. I suppose this is where my ambivalence emerges. If the narrative wants to ask questions about historic responsibility for the death of indigenous peoples and cultures – and indeed the book offers this up as a sort of genocide – and if it wants to ask these questions in a complicated way, it aims to do so through narrative point of view. By showing three different perspectives on events the text weaves form and content to emphasize not only multiple perspectives in historiography, but multiple perspectives in “present” events: that even while, or maybe especially while, an event unfolds the outcome – (the reader’s present) is not at all known or certain. That individuals act in the immediate moment in ways that best align with their personal and cultural values and beliefs, and that to hold any one person accountable for not foreseeing the future is unfair.

As unfair, perhaps, as not assigning *some* accountability within the text for what can only be read as unjust values and beliefs. If the text holds that personal values and beliefs dictate behaviour, the text also introduces as sort of moral relativism that excuses behaviours and beliefs that cause harm and stem from arrogance. In particular I’m referencing the text’s position on the Jesuit priest Christophe. While we can see that his behaviour is guided by his beliefs, the text passes no judgement – to a fault, I think – on these behaviours/beliefs, instead suggesting that Christophe acts in the only way he possibly could based on his belief structure. Historical blame gets diffused into this sort of relativism and happenstance. Except that the Wendat people Christophe lives with change *their* behaviours and beliefs – so change is possible! – in response to living with him for years. Why then, can we we not see some change in Christophe? 

The unwillingness to adopt or present a *position* on the history can be seen again in the descriptions of torture. The Haudenosaunee and Wendat routinely torture one another; in a few lines the Jesuits compare this torture to torture occurring as part of the Spanish Inquisition, as a way, I suspect, of suggesting that neither is more “savage” than ther other, just practicing their particular beliefs in ways appropriate to their respective (cultures). This point is one Boyden raises in interviews, too, I suspect as a way of diffusing criticism that the narrative presents the indigenous as “savage torturers.” Except by equating one form of torture with another the narrative repeats this kind of moral equivalency and so, moral ambivalence. I’m dissatisfied with this equivalence/ambivalence because it seems to me from the perspective of the present – and from the present reading into this past – the events that led us to today are not (at all) open to relativism and ambivalence. Responsibility ought to be assigned in the past, and responsibility ought to be acknowledged/taken in the present.

That said, I’m excited and curious to hear how the book gets taken up by the reading public. With all the “buzz” the book is getting I’m confident it will be on many reading and prize lists and it will most certainly stimulate lively conversation – an outcome the book well deserves. I look forward to hearing what you think and to talking about the book and the history-present it describes.



Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

2 responses to “The Orenda: Ambivalent

  1. Pingback: Finding Healing in the North: Through Black Spruce | There be words

  2. Pingback: Annabel: Bridging Difference | Literary Vice

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