The Orenda and the Constant of Change


The Orenda

Oh, that bittersweet feeling of finishing a good book that not long before was a welcome and constant companion!   So it is with my having just finished Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, a gripping epic set around the mid-1600s during the time of first contact between First Nations people and Europeans in what would become Canada.   The Wendat, or Huron, people, who are one of the principal subjects of this book, believed that each of us and every thing is endowed with an “orenda” or life force, and, so it is, more broadly, with cultures.

Not surprisingly, The Orenda was the top choice in the 2014 Canada Reads competition and good reviews abound for this riveting novel (for instance here on GoodReads).  So, rather than pen another, below is a brief excerpt that encapsulates one of the deep philosophical themes underlying the drama that unfolds within its pages. Throughout my reading of Boyden’s poetic work my thoughts continually dwelled on how this snapshot of a not-too-distant earlier time aptly reflects the concepts found in Buddhism, Hinduism and some other spiritual traditions  of samsara (the cycle of birth, death and re-creation), change and suffering, each of which are constants in our world and in the clash of civilizations throughout history.

“Success is measured in different ways.  The success of the hunt.  The success of the harvest.  For some, the success of harvesting souls.  We watched all of this, fascinated and frightened.  Yes, we saw all that happeed and, yes, we sometimes smiled, but more often we filled with fret.  The world must change, though.  This is no secret.  Things cannot stay the same for long.  With each baby girl born into her longhouse and her clan, with each old man’s death feast and burial in the ossuary, new worlds are built as old ones fall apart.  And sometimes, this change we speak of happens right under our noses, in tiny increments, without our noticing.  By then, though, oh, by then it’s simply too late.

“Yes, the crows continued to caw as crows are prone to do, and after a while we got used to their voices even when they berated us for how we chose to live.  Some of us allowed them their cackling because we found it entertaining, others because we believed our only choice was to learn how to caw ourselves.  And still others kept them close for the worldly treasures their masters promised.

“It’s unfair, though, to blame only the crows, yes?  It’s our obligation to accept our responsibility in the whole affair.  And so we watched as the adventure unfolded, and we prayed to Aataentsic, Sky Woman, who sits by the fire right beside us, to intervene if what we believed was coming indeed coalesced.  But Aataentsic only need remind us that humans, in all their many forms, are an unruly bunch, prone to fits of great generosity and even greater meting out of pain.”


19 responses

  1. I felt the same way about a Darwin biography that I recently read. It was massive but read like a novel, and it was the best bio I’ve ever read. I was so sorry to part with it. But now I may just pick up your suggestion because I love history too.

  2. I’ve never heard this term: First Nations people. Like Indians (or “Native Americans”) in the USA, that is the term for Canadian original inhabitants? Hmm. I always thought it would be hard to write about something prior to one’s birth, but the 1600s is taking it way back. Did you feel like you were back in time?

    • Kerbey, yes, I believe that’s the term more commonly used when referring to Canada’s native peoples. I think the term “aboriginal” is also used.

      Boyden included research endnotes for interested readers and he clearly did quite a bit of research for the writing of this book. My sense is that he did a good job of bringing the readers into the world of the 1600s for the place in which the story is set.

  3. The quote from the book is a good read and what I picked up from the crow being a crow is acceptance. I’ll go haunt this in our library. Thank you for the book review, Brett.

    • Perpetua, the idea of acceptance is certainly part of the view being expressed. Also in the book the term “crow” is one that the Wendat / Huron people use to call the Jesuit priests (because of their black garb and mannerisms) who have only recently been encountered.

  4. I haven’t yet read this book but have heard some very good things about it. We have been using the term First Nations for quite some time in Canada, for the original inhabitants of our country.

  5. The Orenda sits on my to-be-read pile – still the friend and constant companion who gets to stay out rather than be relegated to the library book shelf – passing into an obscurity called – read.. I hesitate to start knowing what I felt when I finished reading both of Boyden’s other books. His stories really rip through a person. He is a great Canadian author and deserved to be the winner of this year’s Canada Reads.

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