The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

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This is set in the 1640s, and told from the perspective of three different people – a Huron warrior, a young Iroquois girl whom he’s kidnapped as some sort of revenge for the murder of his wife and children but whom he’s now bringing up as his own daughter, and a Jesuit missionary (they seem to get into a worrying amount of Canadian historical fiction) also taken prisoner by the Huron.

There’s a lot of violence –  a lot of fighting and a lot of torture. In quite a lot of detail. And a lot of disease – the tragedy of the huge loss of life amongst the native population of the Americas, as a result of diseases brought from Europe to which they had no immunity … it wasn’t really anyone’s fault, and no-one foresaw it happening, but it’s one of the greatest tragedies of early modern history.

It’s well-written, and using three different characters to tell the same story is an interesting technique, and a pleasant change from just telling the story from the point of view of a missionary or other European immigrant. It doesn’t feel very 17th century, though. Maybe it’s just because I’m not that well up on this period in Canadian history, whereas it’s a period I know very well from a British and European viewpoint, but some of what the characters were thinking seemed rather 21st century. Or maybe the author was trying to show that some things never change. I suppose some of them – girls chasing after boys, boys chasing after girls – don’t.

It must be a very difficult subject to write about. The level of violence which was normal in the culture of the First Nations bands at the time is hard to accept now. The fact that the Jesuits thought they were doing a good thing by trying to destroy another culture and replace it with their own is hard to accept now. And we’re all trying very hard not to write anything which makes it look as if we’re too stupid to understand that things which aren’t acceptable now weren’t acceptable then. I gather that there has been some controversy about this book, but I think that the author’s tried very hard, and I think that the book’s well worth reading. Some subjects are very hard to write about because they are so sensitive, but all credit to those who try, even when they must sometimes feel that they can’t win, and especially to those who try to show things from more than one perspective.

 

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