The Orenda (Boyden)

The Orenda - Joseph Boyden

Oh dear.

I don't deny that this tale of the first encounters between the Jesuit priests and the Huron and Iroquois is well written. Not at all. Nor do I deny that it's well-researched, or that it provides a much-needed alternative point of view to the account of the first contact that we all know, directly or indirectly, from the French fathers' journals. This is a book that's celebrated in modern Canadian literature.

For me, it was a failure because I dreaded to turn each page. The level of violence was so high - even in the relatively everyday transactions, let alone the far-too-frequent torture scenes - that I could not give myself to the storytelling. Rather like the torture victims, in fact, I dissociated - I refused to identify with the characters at all, even the female ones, who were in any case a little difficult to grasp because their motives were obscured by mysticism. The men - the Natives on both sides of the war, the Jesuits, and the little we saw of the French secular men - were unremittingly barbaric. Evenhandedly, Boyden gave us every reason to attach the label "les sauvages" to absolutely every male in the story.

There was a time when I was younger (much younger) and untouched by the real pain in the world, when I would have innocently read all this savagery for the queasy thrill of torture porn. Can't do that any more, sorry. It simply disgusts me; and, more worryingly, in this time of my countrymen's earnest attempts at reconciliation with Native peoples, the gruesome depictions of routine and customary torture doesn't put me in any sort of conciliatory mood at all. (I've never been in much of a conciliatory mood towards the Jesuits, either, so that particular bias isn't much ameliorated here).  In the interests of reading more widely in Canadian literature, I pushed on; perhaps I should simply have set it aside.

Oh dear.