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The Orenda

By Joseph Boyden Knopf

448 pages, $26.95

By Michael D. Langan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

“We had the magic before the crows (Jesuits) came…”

– An Indian ancestor voice from “The Orenda”

Anybody who ever strolled around the quadrangle at Canisius College and saw the statue of St. Isaac Jogues (1606–1646), the Jesuit missionary priest, pointing heavenward with two missing fingers probably knows the story behind it. If not, you will know why after reading “The Orenda.”

“Orenda” is another name for what George Bernard Shaw later called the “life force,” the spirit that inhabits all of nature, so named earlier by the Huron and Iroquois tribes.

Some of Jogues’ digits were chewed off by a member of another tribe, the Mohawks, before more tortures and an eventual tomahawking. His body was thrown into the Mohawk River near Auriesville, where other Jesuit martyrs are buried.

“Orenda” is a work of historical fiction by award-winning Canadian author Joseph Boyden. It is at times a gruesome piece of business – perhaps too much so for the squeamish – describing Huron-Iroquois rivalry and the rupture of the Indians’ ancient world with the coming of the Europeans. This savagery-survival theme is too simplistic. Natives, Indians, Native Americans, however these indigenous people are described, they come across as a resilient but spent force from the author’s perspective.

The supposedly wiser cultures from across the sea had more in mind than mere conversions or colonization. The Europeans were interested in glomming onto every element of the New World, trade of all kinds, furs, minerals; the whole megillah, to use the Jewish phrase now come to mean “everything.”

“Orenda” is also a long meditation on the nature of God and the universe, “magic” as seen by the Indians, and Jesus by the Jesuits. Alas, fighting over theology turns out to be largely a losing game.

In a monologue at the beginning of “The Orenda,” an Indian ancestor, one of the Sky People, remarks about the early Jesuits to the New World, “And when they cawed that our magic was unclean, we laughed, took a little offense, even killed a few of them and pulled their feathers for our hair. We lived on. But that word, unclean, that word, somehow, like an illness, like its own magic, it began to grow. Very few of us saw that coming. So maybe this is the story of those few.”

The Indians called Jesuits “crows” because of their black robes and habit of quiet watching and emulation. These traits among others were practiced by Jesuits over the past 474 years wherever they were sent.

At times it is hard to know who the speakers are in “Orenda.” This seems a disability to me. Why make the reader guess? I suppose the mystery of reading without immediate identification of the speaker lends a “you are there” quality to the novel. If so, I’m not sure who’d want to be “there.”

In the end we recognize the interlocutors by their discourse and its progression. The main narrators are Bird, the Huron leader; Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee woman captured and made a daughter by Bird; and Christophe, a young French Jesuit seized by the Hurons, who attempts to convert them.

The young Indian woman, Snow Falls, mourns the killing of her mother and father as she feigns sleep, captured and in Bird’s possession. “I miss my mother’s kisses … I miss my father kneeling down and rubbing his nose against mine,” she remembers.

After the murder of Bird’s wife and family by the Hurons, he takes a lover, a woman named Gosling. Bird lets us know that there was an agreement between him and his wife that if one were to die young, and after appropriate mourning, the survivor should feel free to take care of physical needs.

So Bird visits Gosling’s bark wigwam, situated away from others. She is an Anishnaabe, a Nipissing from the north. Gosling has an aura of magic, too. She also has an understanding of tribal medicine that makes her holy in the eyes of those she has healed. She is able to walk by sentries as if invisible.

Christophe, the Jesuit, keeps a journal of his missionary activity to send back to France for his superiors. He writes them, “To bring Jesus into the lives of these people is one mission…” “The sauvages, they are shameless in their lack of modesty…” he explains, adding that, in the longhouses, “The light of the fires, the thick smoke, the primal grunts of passion, the laughing children, the chatter of this language that I struggle so hard to master, I think I might very well be in one of Dante’s rings.”

The Jesuit’s mission is a losing proposition, although one admires Christophe’s perspiration and inspiration as he speaks to Gosling and Bird in her tent about his savior. “Great Voice, he loves you … Great Voice is son child deer Christ.”

“Your Christ sounds fascinating,” Gosling tells Christophe. “Do tell me more, and explain everything about him and the place you come from,” she smiles, like a practiced diplomat. She tells Bird: “He pleads with me to pray … for it seems I will go to a bad place if I do not.”

The reader recognizes that this is a zero-sum game.

This New World venue has been written about before, notably by Brian Moore, the Northern Irish-Canadian novelist thrice-listed for Booker Prize consideration. His novel, “Black Robe” (1985), is a better rendering of New France in the 17th century. It features Father Laforgue, a French Jesuit, trying to repopulate a mission to the Hurons while he struggles with his own beliefs. It was made into a film of the same name in 1991.

Nevertheless, there is a quiet tenaciousness to this book – staring brutish life and death in its pitiless face – that is unsparing and grudgingly admirable.

Some may wish “The Orenda” to have been a hundred pages shorter. Those who enjoy hunting and the primal scents of nature, like the blood and fur of a deer devoured by wolves and left on snow, will wish it longer still.

Michael D. Langan graduated from Canisius College, a Jesuit school, some years ago.