Review of Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”

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Published by: Knopf, Doubleday (Random House)
Release Date: May 13,2014

When we learned about Native Americans in primary school, we were always taught about them as a homogeneous group, who unfortunately lost their  proverbial stake in the fertile, seemingly feral wilderness of North America, once the European settlers came along and savagely overtook their land. From there on out, we were to never to hear from them again in so-called “Social Studies” class. They were an afterthought, a tragic prelude to the far more exciting story of the origins of our democratic/republic nation. The cultures and voices of these “Native Americans” (still called the far more antiquated term “Indians,” even when I was in school) were lost in translation in the severely bowdlerized history textbooks that we soup up for our children. We indoctrinate them into the Christian missionary perspective of Native Americans, which is to always look at  Native American culture as foreign, inferior, and uncultured to their own Western Christian culture (which is seen as refined, sarosanct, and cultured). It is the task of the European settlers to rectify this “uncultured” status for these people, and that is the underlying narrative of the story we first introduce to our elementary school-aged kids about the origins of our country.

This is the one thing that really intrigued me, thus, about Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. Intriguingly, it is a  slow, measured, artful story of one Native American tribe ( a snapshot of sorts of this tribe), and we are given a chance to hear various perspectives from some of the inhabitants of this tribe, including a Jesuit, priestly missionary, a kidnapped girl from another Native American tribe, and the newly adopted mother and father of this new daughter. We are given a noncritical, almost documentary-esque look at this tribe. Joseph Boyden’s minimalist prose,carrying a lot of symbolic depth, has a slight resemblance to Cormac Mccarthy’s prose. The one thing that is a bit different, though, stylistically-speaking about Joseph Boyden’s own form of minimalist prose (very post-modern in style) is that the prose does not meander too much on images of moral decrepitude and other morbid things.  Rather, Joseph Boyden’s story seems to speak much more vividly of life that is restored, after the thaw of grief and winter, and we see many intersecting perspectives in this story of how grief, in one way or another, brings different people to this tribe together somewhat.

Joseph Boyden is an anthropological observer, as the writer, and he never contrives the story to become artificially dramatic in any way. Instead, he allows the story to to take shape naturally, and the reader, as such, might have a bit of trouble immersing themselves at first into the story,since there is no narrator hand-holding in this novel. There are no authorial interjections of moments of silly, awkward exposition of any kind to clear up the reader’s confusion with trying to figure out just exactly what is going on in the story. Rather, the reader embodies the confusion, the disorientation, the marked culture shock of several of the characters that are entering this Native American tribe, as aliens in a sense. And, this is where Joseph Boyden goes beyond what other historical fiction books, dealing with Native Americans, have done; he impressively works his tale so that the reader themselves are the ones that feel “alien” to the world that they are entering. It is the Native American tribe in this story that is the “cultured” world; the settled, civilized world. We are entering with all our preconceived, inane Western ideas about how this culture should represent themselves in the pages of the novel, but we are quickly swept away by Joseph Boyden’s clever, subtle prose that makes the story sneak up on our subconscious and completely drown us, unsuspectingly at times,  into the beautiful, fast-moving currents of the rich narrative flow of this very impressive work of fiction.

At times, you might feel unease, unsettled, and even a bit detached, especially during the beginning. Joseph Boyden does this purposely, for this is where he masterfully unravels a deep story right before our eyes. Without any foreknowledge of when this will happen, we are drowning in the very engrossing, very emotionally-packed story of the many divergent perspectives of those that inhabit this one Native American tribe, and there is one common thread that the reader will eventually discern that makes these accounts converge, impressively, right before your eyes. Be prepared to ponder carefully your preconceived notions of Native Americans, from your elementary school days, and see that many of them are quite fallacious, superficial ideas in the light of a nuanced story that portrays things much more realistically from their perspective. The Orenda is an ingenious journey of both self-discovery, identity, and the notion of just who really is the “foreign,uncultured” savage. It painstakingly gives us one of the freshest, naturalistic accounts of a Native American tribe that I have read in fiction, and this is one that is authentically written without any of the Western apprehension and elitism that haunts other stories of this sort, and it is this cultural apprehension that often reduces Native American stories to trite, barbarian caricatures.

Thankfully, none of that is in this story, and that is why this book comes with my high recommendation for any fans of historical fiction that is written objectively, honestly, and lucidly! Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda exceeds on those levels, and ends up being a multifarious, masterfully written novel that deals with death, grief, meaning of life, beyond just the more immediate, anthropological focus of the novel that provides us with nuanced, rich, authentic Native American characters and perspectives that will hopefully help to give you deeper insight into their history and their culture, which is not as monolithic and uncomplicated as your Social Studies textbook described them.

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