The book that could change Canada: The Orenda

It’s here.

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What a shortlist we have this year! I am thrilled that the book I thought could change Canada, right from the beginning, was The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden, and now it’s in the final five. Not to mention that two of my other most favourite books have made it!

I will admit that this year I will miss my Christmas Canada Reads reading sessions as I’ve already read four of the five books! Just more time to get me excited about the titles and, Sophie’s choice; how a panel will ever choose between such amazing novels.

Over this week, I’ll be posting about each book one by one. CBC Books was kind enough to invite me to the launch last week and beforehand, 4 other bloggers and I were given the opportunity to speak to each author and panelist. (Save Stephen Lewis – for some reason he wasn’t around until the launch.)

Let’s begin with the book I thought could change Canada, The Orenda.

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Here’s what I had to say about The Orenda as one of 10 bloggers asked by CBC Books to pick the novel we thought could change Canada:

“It was shocking and embarrassing to me as the years passed in university to realize how little I actually knew about our history in Canada. In recent years, I’ve been reading almost exclusively Canadian literature and though not all of it tackles Canada’s history, there are some novels that really stand out as educational without reading like a textbook. The Orenda by Joseph Boyden is far from a Canadian History textbook and I believe can truly inspire social change in Canada. Canada Reads last year featured Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, and many Canadians had their eyes opened to a boy’s life in a residential school. Then, in the last year, Idle No More has taken centre stage in Canadian media. To feature The Orenda in this year’s Canada Reads would be a natural complement to the conversation that has already begun. This novel will educate Canadians, open their minds and encourage them to learn more about our history, the indigenous peoples of Canada, and how they can, themselves, make a change.”

Representing The Orenda is Gemini-nominated Wab Kinew. He’s a hip hop artist, award-winning journalist, and Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg.

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Wab and Joseph were the first two we were lucky enough to interview. What handsome men! And, in case you missed it, here’s a fabulous photo of the two of them just before the live show with Jian Ghomeshi.

Photo courtesy of @CBCLive (@eltee)

Also, matching.

Boyden said he was thrilled to have Wab representing him. He said that he’s seen it already since The Orenda was released, but he’s really hoping that the inclusion of his novel in Canada Reads will inspire conversation. Wab added, “You’re always stronger when you deal with the truth. We have to sort it out. We’re neighbours.”

The Orenda follows three characters: an older Haudenosaunee warrior, an Iroquois girl he captured and made his own daughter and a young Jesuit who has moved into their village in an attempt to “save their souls” by bringing them to God.

For any of you who read Indian Horse last year, I strongly believe that The Orenda has a similar value and importance to contemporary Canadian society. I  feel very connected to our country and passionate about its history, but know very little other than the facts. What Boyden brings to us is a series of intertwined human stories. He presents our history as a dynamic, exhaustibly researched novel that captivates the imagination and confronts some difficult truths.

Sainte Marie among the Iroquois, a 17th c. Jesuit mission on which The Orenda is based

I’ve heard many people say that The Orenda doesn’t seem like a book they would pick up. That’s one of the amazing things about Boyden’s writing and why he’s one of my all-time favourite authors. He presents a story to you that’s so well written, so compelling that you learn to trust him. Since reading Through Black Spruce, Three Day Road and now The Orenda, I have become extremely interested in native history in Canada.

“With Idle No More, reconciliation is now more important than ever,” said Wab. “This book shows what it is about native culture that native people fight for.”

Full disclosure: there are some difficult scenes to read. “Caressing,” was a form of torture that played a part in Indigenous warfare. If a member of another tribe was captured, he was to be tortured slowly, for all to see. The longer he lasted without crying out and instead singing his death song, the more respect he garnered from his captors. In some cases, if a warrior had required days of torture and kept his pride until the very end, his captors would eat parts of his flesh or drink his blood upon his death to show their respect and to gain some of his power.

My boyfriend and I went to see Boyden interviewed by Matt Galloway at the IFOA in late September and when someone complained that his book was too violent, he said that when you consider the whole book, the number of violent pages were actually quite few. Yes, they are graphic, but not for shock value. This ceremony was part of the Indigenous culture at the time, and has a deserved place in the book. If you’re squeamish, power through. This book is worth it.

But how will The Orenda fare in Canada Reads?

I was extremely impressed by Wab’s composure. When he spoke about the book with Jian at the launch he was confident and well-spoken. He presented his argument for The Orenda passionately and with class. As it’s obviously quite evident, I adored this book and think that many Canadians could benefit from reading it.

People watch the news and they see Idle No More protests and come to their own conclusions about the movement; sometimes with very little of the facts known and / or understood. To understand this part of native history, and our own, I think would be quite powerful for many Canadians. The sad thing is that I think that most of the people who watch and listen to Canada Reads are likely more open-minded than those who don’t (the CBC’s all a bunch of lefties, right?) and maybe this book would preach to the choir. Regardless, no matter how much we think we know, this book presents all sides of the story. I also found it quite accessible. The language was eloquent, but not overbearing and Boyden did a fabulous job of setting the scene and introducing characters and their backgrounds without assuming knowledge from the reader.

I think that Wab’s greatest competition as a panelist will be in Sarah Gadon who is representing Annabel by Kathleen Winter. What do you think? Have you read The Orenda yet?

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. cara hancox says:

    Orenda sounds like a compelling story of our indigenous people and how Canada has stumbled along trying to deal with our native Canadian poplulation. I would like to read it after taking in your comments.

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