The Terror and Pity of Contact

Native-Jesuit relations under a brilliant fictional microscope

It is a rare book that can alter forever the reader’s understanding of a single word, an ordinary word that until now has had one meaning only.

The word is “caress.” A soft, musical word, with loving connotations; how can it possibly be used without irony to describe acts of torture? But henceforth for this reader it is yoked to images of flayed skin and clamshell razors, the smell of fire and flesh, and the sound of men fearlessly singing their death songs—recurring, heartbreaking scenes from what is described as “mourning warfare” in Joseph Boyden’s magnificent third novel, The Orenda.

Three characters narrate The Orenda; their tales are interwoven, they often cover the same events, but they also push the story forward independently of one another. They are first-person, present-tense narratives by Bird, Snow Falls and Crow, all protagonists in the novel and emblematic of the triad of tragedy that is its foundation: the Huron (or Wendat) and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) nations and the Jesuit mission from France. Bird is the Wendat warrior and leader, a wise, fierce man governed equally by compassion and revenge in his relationships with enemies and conquests. Snow Falls is an Iroquois (Seneca) girl, seized by Bird during one of the apparently endless cycles of raid, slaughter and capture that characterize Huron–Iroquois interactions; Bird at first plans to kill her, but instead adopts her as a replacement for his own daughter killed, with his wife and another daughter, by the Iroquois. Crow, as he is called by the Huron, is Christophe, a Jesuit priest, modelled at least in part on St. Jean de Brébeuf, who first lives in Bird’s village as a captive and later establishes a mission nearby. The circle of secondary characters (the novel has the sweep of Homerian epic, the formal rigour of Euripidean tragedy) includes Bird’s devoted, intrepid second, the “war-bearer” Fox, and—as a direct challenge to Crow’s Christian belief system and mythology—Gosling, an Anishinabe healer and wise woman from the north, so also, in a way, an outsider in the village of the Arendahronnon (the Bear clan).

The novel is, unavoidably, a tale of horrific disasters, on a grand scale—exquisitely drawn-out rituals of torture, episodes of drought, famine, epidemic (malignant influenza, diphtheria) and the virtual annihilation of a people—and small, individual tragedies—first taste of alcohol, first firing of what Bird calls the shining wood, attempted rape of a girl, buggery of a boy. Mitigation comes in the form of tenderness and acts of generosity—the gift of knowledge (Gosling to Snow Falls), Bird’s patience with Snow Falls, Crow’s conflicted compassion for her—and in the beauty of language, descriptions of land, sky, water and the intimacy of family life.

Boyden says that this is fiction, “inspired” by history; he has synthesized events and locations and real characters (Champlain makes an appearance, as does Father Lalemant) from a period of several decades into a drama that is simultaneously relentless and overwhelming (a book so powerful that at times you must put it down) and utterly compelling (when you pick it up again you are instantly enfolded into the world Boyden has so brilliantly imagined).

Imagined, and recreated. There is a passage near the beginning of the book describing The Kettle, the Huron Feast of the Dead, a ceremony of some ten days’ duration, as the village moves to a new location, and brings its buried ancestors and relations to a new burial ground. From Crow’s journal, addressed to his Superior:

 

… the most splendid thing I’ve yet to see in this heathen land … All these communities descend upon their respective cemeteries and unearth their deceased from the tombs in which they lay. Each family sees to its dead with such bereavement and care, their tears falling like raindrops … some are simply bones, others have only a type of parchment over their bones … Still others, the recently departed, crawl with worms … Once the bodies have been unearthed, they are put on display so all family members might grieve anew, and it’s this that strikes me as especially powerful, the willingness of the sauvages to gaze down what they each will one day become. There’s something in this particular practice that can teach us Christians a powerful lesson.

 

The (almost verbatim) source for this description is Volume X of the Jesuit Relations (all 71 volumes are online, translated into English); Huronia, 1636, was written by Brebeuf, with his trademark vigor, clarity and objectivity, even admiration. (Boyden’s characters too never hesitate to reveal their respect and admiration of one another, even in adversarial conditions.) The description of Crow’s death, at the end of the book, is drawn from the testimony of the Jesuit donné, Regnault, witness to Brébeuf’s actual death. Boyden seamlessly integrates these materials and matches them with rich detail drawn from traditional sources and modern historians of Wendat culture, Georges Sioui and Bruce Trigger. The result is a work that is both exemplary storytelling and a tempered exposé of the clash of civilizations; Boyden, whose earlier novels Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce were explorations of modern First Nations characters caught up in western wars and cities, is himself of Anishinabe, Irish and Scottish heritage, and he attended the Jesuit-run Brébeuf College School. This is unquestionably his history.

The book is steeped in a quiet, sorrowful anger. “This, on the surface, is the story of our past,” writes Boyden in one of four brief meditations suspended outside the fiction proper, and which unequivocally address the current status of First Nations in Canada. The coming of “the crows” to North America brought irrevocable devastation and change, but Boyden asks, “What role did I play in the troubles that surround me … If success is measured one way, then how shall we measure defeat?” Boyden’s writerly sympathies are undoubtedly with the First Nations characters, but he mostly resists irony when it comes to certain aspects of Jesuit conversion—the ridiculous trick of seeming to command a clock (named Captain of the Day) to strike the hour, the arbitrary burial of a convert who commits suicide outside mission cemetery gates. Instead, he presents a dialogue between Aetaentsic, the Sky Woman and mother of the Wendat, and The Great Voice of the Jesuits, in the form of a story about three deeply realized characters.

It is a complex dialogue, because at the heart of it lies the mystery of language. Words like “caress” are disturbing—a spiritual dimension to torture is almost incomprehensible to the modern mind, despite equivalents in Catholic rituals of mortification of the flesh. The word “orenda” is not easily understood. Boyden refers to orenda as “our magic”: “we understood our magic. We understood what the orenda implied. But who is at fault when that recedes?” Christophe writes of the orenda as a life force similar to “our own Catholic belief in the soul … What appalls me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just human beings have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water.” Fundamental to early Christian theology was the notion that God made the world for humans; fundamental to native theology is the belief that humans are a part of nature, not above it. Little wonder that conversion required more than a little trickery.

The final chapters of The Orenda are heartrending; the ending is implicit in the beginning, and yet is still almost unbearable. But in the true spirit of tragedy the novel offers catharsis—in respite from massacre, on an island, and in gestures of love and faith and miracles of birth and prophecy. Boyden’s novel is, I think, the book of the year. It would be well placed, not only on the curricula of aboriginal studies courses, but on all Canadian history and literature courses; his “our” belongs to all of us.