First Nation Canadians

I am not sure why I have never posted about Joseph Boyden before. As in so many cases, it might be that I was reading his books before I started my blog; or because my blog was centred on the listed books for the Man Booker Prize. But now I am seeking to redress that omission.

Mr Boyden was recently on Radio 4 talking to Libby Purves on Midweek, probably still available as a MP3 download (though quite what that is, I am not sure. I just know that they exist somewhere.) If it is still out there and this blog interests you at all I do recommend that you listen to his voice, and obviously to what he says.

I have just finished The Orenda. It was recommended to me by a Canadian cousin, thank you Isobel, but at the time it was not available in the UK. So I waited until November, putting it on order at my FAVOURITE bookshop, Primrose Hill Books. Thus, I was rewarded by hearing Joseph Boyden talk about the book, before reading it, so could read with his voice in my head.

Now to his books. The first was a book Three Day Road about World War 1, following the story of two snipers hidden in the trees for hours at a time, first class killing machines. The snipers are attached to the Canadian Army, and the story follows the tale from the wilds of Ontario to the mud soaked trenches of France. They are Cree. The story is told backwards, an old Oji-Cree medicine woman, Niska hears of the return of her son from France, he has been badly wounded and is now addicted to the morphine that has been used to aid his recovery. She travels from the North, paddling for three days to town to find him; but when she arrives she finds not her son, Elijah, but her nephew Xavier who somehow has got confused with his cousin. In her attempt to heal him she tells stories of their ancestral past and he raves and mumbles out his own devastating tales of his personal battles.

Based on the real life experiences of two relatives, Joseph Boyden has created for us a dramatic reconstruction of front line war; Xavier has noticed that three (the number) has a mutual significance for his European (ergo mostly Christian compatriots) as well as for himself. There are three lines of battle – the front line, the support line and the reserve line; their God (the Christian God) has three parts, one of them spent three days in the land of the dead which exactly mirrors the journey that Cree warriors and hunters make towards Death, which if they survive the three day journey without passing into the Land of the Sky, then they live to fight another day on earth.

Niska and Xavier struggle together along this terrible path: she fighting to keep him on earth while his subconscious or spirit is fighting to escape from the damaging memories of his recent past.

The second book Through Black Spruce won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. This is the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker. It switches more neatly between two stories, that of William Bird a pilot, who is in a coma after a flying accident and his niece, Annie Bird. She sits by him and tells him about her life, and we follows his story which is going on in his head. While fascinating to read, there is slightly less to engage with in this book. Which is not to say I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The newest novel is The Orenda. scan0003Here Joseph Boyden takes us back into early 17th Century Canada where the French (the Iron People) have a tiny toe-hold in a place on a cliff that they call Kebec. They are trading with the First Nation tribes. In this story the Huron burst into the scene after a terrible massacre, killing a whole family barring one daughter; they are travelling with a Jesuit priest (the crow) who makes himself responsible for this traumatized child. There are three voices in this drama and we switch, chapter by chapter between them. The Jesuit – Christophe, the child – Snow Falls (an Iroquois) and her Huron (adoptee) father – Bird.

Although written in a different order, this book is an historical novel that takes us back to the beginning of the story of the Bird (possibly Boyden) family. It is in three parts, the first part deals with the childhood of Snow Falls, who constantly wishes for the revenge of her family’s slaughter.

The second part, three years later follows the Huron in their trading adventures with Champlain, part of the trading deal means that Bird agrees to take back two more crows (Jesuits or Charcoals, as they are called), and also Christophe who has saved Snow Falls from a rape by one of the French soldiers. There is yet another battle with the Haudenosaunee tribe, Snow Falls’ own tribe, which results in one of the Jesuits, Isaac being caught and tortured, but he gets returned hugely damaged both physically and mentally, while the Huron also have captives whom they torture in turn, though Snow Falls persuades Bird not to kill the youngest, but to adopt him. Against his better judgement, Bird agrees.

The third part is the most difficult to read, disease (probably brought by the Europeans) ravages the Huron village, Bird sends Snow Falls away to live with the Jesuits. When she returns she is no longer sure who she is, for she realises suddenly that she is neither truly Huron nor still Haudenosaunee. So we follow their story to its conclusion…though we already know that it is not the bitter end because of the other two books.

The Orenda is the natural magic of the tribe but also its over-arching spirit. The magic-medicine woman in this story is Gosling, from a tribe in the North, different again from the Huron or the Iroquois.


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