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 build 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. (153)
The Orenda is a novel about the change that occurs when worlds collide.
The initial collision is between the Huron and the Iroquois people. At war for years, the latest child-kidnapping has sparked a conflict that threatens to destroy one of them. The second and more subtle collision is between the Jesuit missionaries and the First Nations people. The diseases they bring to the new world along with their determined proselytizing change life forever.
I was grateful for the honestly with which Boyden portrayed the players in his drama. I half expected a story about how the “noble savage” fell to the corrupting influences of Imperialist forces in the form of greedy missionaries. No such simplistic tropes exist here. Boyden’s researched portrayal of Huron-Iroquois warfare is stomach-curdling in its violence. The Jesuits, while certainly confused by the culture, are portrayed with a steadfast (if misguided) devotion.
This clash of cultures is best explained by one of my favourite scenes in the book. Crow (the Huron name for a Jesuit missionary) has decided that if he can only bring his prospective convert to kiss the crucifix he will make major strides towards the conversion of the village. Snow Falls (the potential convert) awakens to see in Crow’s crucifix the fallen body of her murdered father. She assumes that Crow is trying to steal her soul next.
This story is what happens when worldviews crash. It’s honest, violent, and heroic.
—Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Toronto, ON: Hamish Hamilton, 2013).