babble book club: 'The Orenda' by Joseph Boyden

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Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture
babble book club: 'The Orenda' by Joseph Boyden

Hello bbc members! This is the official thread for our April 2014 selection, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. Our final discussion will take place on Tuesday April 22nd at 8pm EDT/5pm PDT

Here is a snippet from the book jacket summary of the novel:

The Orenda opens with the kidnapping of Snow Falls, a spirited Iroquois girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is and elder and one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. In Snow Falls, Bird recognized the ghost of his lost daughter; he sees that the girl possesses powerful magic, something useful to him and his people on the troubled road ahead. The Huron Nation has battled the Iroquois for as long as Bird can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous peril from afar.

Christophe does not see himself as a threat, however. A charismatic Jesit missionary, he has found his calling amongst the Huron. As an emissary from distant lands, he brings much more, though, than his faith to the new world.

As these three souls dance one another through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars, and a nation emerges from worlds in flux.

Sounds sufficiently dramatic! I should add that while this book might appear to be an intimidatingly hefty read (it clocks in at 490 pages) it goes by pretty quickly.

Check out the post in bound but not gagged, and learn how to become a bbc member, here.

Read my blog post on The Orenda and Canada Reads here (contains spoilers!)

The Orenda should be widely available in bookstores since it just won Canada Reads a few weeks ago (I know I’ve seen it on sale at the grocery store as well as in regular bookstores). The softcover is $22 and the ebook version is $15. It might be a bit more difficult to get at the library if you live in a bigger city (it currently has 1220 holds at the Toronto Public Library – yikes!) But if you’d prefer not to pay full price for a new copy you can try the following:

-  check out used bookstores – the book has been out since September 2013 so a few avid readers have likely already read it and disposed of it. Try Pulp Fiction or the Paper Hound in Vancouver, and Elliot'sBalfour's or Pandemonium in Toronto.

- Ask around! Canada Reads is usually huge for book sales. Chances are someone you know has a copy they're not using.

Looking forward to hearing what you think! Stay tuned throughout the month of April for links to (optional) supplementary reading, questions, etc. Rants and musings from all bbc members are welcomed and warmly encouraged.



...lifted from the Canada Reads thread where Orenda was discussed a bit:


That line of criticism of the Orenda [by Hayden King, who Christina links in herblogpost] was unlikely to develop on Canada Reads- if for no other reason because of Waub Keniew's heavily in your face promotion of the book.


I did think of it, and never read any reviews. But I'm going to defend Orenda, including against that criticism by Hayden King.

Boyden's narritive is told as the journeys and musings of the main characters. There is VERY little actual dialogue. That comes in mostly as internal single character at a time accounts of what was said.

And there are a minimum number of other characters developed at all.

That is a deliberate device. I found the device took some getting used to [and it is there long before your attention is forced to the graphic violence and torture], even though the "voice" reminded me of living among First Nations people.

Boyden wanted to tell a story that gets as far as possible from 'otherizing' any of the main characters. And that includes the Jesuit Cristophe Crow. And I think it is pretty clear that his own 'larger agenda' is that as peoples we must truly know each other- warts and all. And that includes not treating Jesuits as cardboard cut-outs.

And Boyden also clearly wants First Nations people to face the savagery they visited upon each other, while the colonizing wolf walked in the door... to the point of people working with the wolf. Despite many being very aware this is a wolf that looks like it is able to do us in.

In my personal opinion that's not some version of blaming the victim. It isnt for me to say. But I know that Waub Keniew is not going to be alone at all among First Nations community members and intellectuals who feel this needs to be done.

I really do not think the Iroquois are de-humanized, or treated as the archetype of the savagery.

This is an epic story told in very close and very localized detail. The Iroquois are just not part of that little close up world being narrated. And I think Boyden actually goes to lengths to make sure that the similarity of the Huron and Iroquois is portrayed, especially when it comes to making war. Without being didactic, the main character Bird is constantly expressing that,... at the same time he is stoking his relentless reaching for revenge. Bird is portrayed as wise, very tolerant and compassionate, at the same time as he is blinded by the path of revenge.

And I think that is just balderdash that Cristophe Crow is in practice the main character.


It is obviously a book that is going to excite polarized opinions. 


Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Thanks for your thoughts KenS. I know there was some good discussion about the book in the Canada Reads thread so hopefully we can pick that up again here!

and re: your point about the Iroquois not being part of that close-up world, apparently The Orenda is the first book in a trilogy, so there are going to be 2 more books: 1 about the Iroquois and another about Gosling's background and the Anishinaabe. 

How's everybody doing on securing a copy? Anyone have miraculous luck with the library?


Here are some links to Orenda-related material on the interwebs for anyone interested in supplementary reading...

Hayden King's much-discussed critical review:

Peggy Blair's historical review (contains some interesting info about the historical facts in the novel:

And also an extensive profile of Joseph Boyden in the Walrus:

I'm about halfway through the book for the second time - reading it again has been interesting. I know what's going to happen so I'm less invested in the pace of the plot and more interested in the details.

Looking forward to hearing what everybody else thinks!


I bought a copy last Saturday.


By "pace of the plot" do you mean that the first time you read it you were [at least somehwat] impatient for things to 'get moving' ?

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Hmmm, not necessarily, although the plot does move slowly at points. I meant more that I kind of raced through the book because I wanted to find out what happened. But now that I've read it once I know how it pans out so I'm taking it more slowly and paying more attention to the details.

Excited to hear you got a copy, Caissa! 



The minute Boyden chose the basic story, he would know that a lot of readers know how it ends.

If anything, that was for me some nagging dread, early in the book.

For a long time I was at least somewhat impatient with what I guess I would call the pace- at least a third of the way. And I will quit on books, though I dont think I was ever even nearing that territory.

I think my impatience was over the really complex and tense relations among the main characters- Bird, Snow Falls, and Cristophe Crow.

Like, where can this be going?

But the biggest deal for me was getting over the complete lack of dialogue. [Conversations and discussions are narrated via the thoughts of one of the characters.] That took some getting used to for me. And after I was over that hump, there was still a long time of whats going on, where could this be going among these characters stuck with each other?

But its a very compelling story that pulls you along. It sounds like maybe in your case, so much so that you were racing ahead. (?)

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Yes - the style of narration definitely takes some getting used to as does the three-part narration, which means that some scenes are repeated two or three times from different perspectives.

Also, I just stumbled upon another historical review of the book written by a Classics professor at McGill University (again, contains spoilers!)

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I am waiting for my partner to finish the book -- and then I guess I'll read it. Glad to have you leading this discussion, Christina!


Maybe having the individual who suggests the book provide the moderation would be the way to go for all future books? This would relief the burden of work from our current coordinator and get more participation that we have had in the BBC lately.


A refresher is in order:

Where does moderation come from?

[I like that.]

What is the history of moderation?


And other questions like:

Will Boyden be participating?

Generally: do the authors always or mostly participate?

If they don't, why the specified time?


Kaitlin is the founder and organizer of  the BBC. She has kept track of books, dates etc. Arranged for many Canadian authors to be present to discuss their works. Been a presence on both Facebbok and Rabble/Babble. The specified time as been to provide some semblance of real time discussion.   I don't know if Boyden is participating in this discussion.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Kaitlin: dragging her feet in the babble book club since 2012.


Stareted The Orenda last night. It looks like it will be a great read.


Colonialism lives on in Boyden's book.
Hayden King:

The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada: Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization. The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people. 

I believe the Haudenosaunee peoples were antagonistic ... to colonialism.
The Jesuit perspective is sickening. The 'martyrs' were pedophiles burned for their heinous crimes., weapons in the war for territory and resources. The dominant myth continues to be perpetrated today to destabilize Indigenous solidarity and undermine Haudenosaunee sovereignty and territorial rights. IMO .


Are your comments historical or in relation to the novel?

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Thanks for your comment, arielc. Like Caissa I'm wondering if your comments are based on your reading of the Orenda or historical (for instance the Jesuit views put forward in The Jesuit Relations)?

The more I think about it the more I realize my discomfort with the novel comes from the way it could be (and has been) taken up and not necessarily from the novel itself. The novel itself is, I think, a bit more complicated and interesting than that. I'm not sure if I agree with King that the Jesuit perspective is privileged because I think Bird and Snow Falls get just as much airtime as Christophe does. But there are specific moments where the representation of Indigenous characters strikes me as problematic, so.

I want to say more but am worried about spoiling the book for those who haven't made it too far yet. I'm almost done my second read-through!

How's everybody else doing? 

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Oh, and to answer KenS's question from earlier this week: while Kaitlin normally does moderation I will be doing it this time around.


I am about 200 pages in. I deliberately avoiding any reviews of the book so that I can just read it and ruminate on it myself.

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Hello friends. Just a reminder that our final discussion for the Orenda will take place tomorrow at 8pm EDT/ 5pm PDT. Of course feel free to post comments or questions in advance of the discussion. Our final discussion will last an hour. I'm really looking forward to hearing what you thought!


Sorry I will miss the discussion, Christina.  I am 'on the road' today. But look forward to reading the exchange after the fact. (I am advised I am getting the book for Father's Day, so may have comments of my own then!)


Finished it. Not sure what I think of it overall. Definitely more violence than I think was required.  I see the discussion is scheduled for the second period of the Habs game. Wink

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Okay, here marks the beginning of our discussion! Caissa I hope you're willing to multitask and join in. I also see that the Habs are winning! Laughing.

And re the violence: yeah I agree that it was excessive too (I think Stephen Lewis called it "pornographic" during Canada Reads). If you think about why an author includes violence in a work, it's usually for 1 of 3 reasons: a. to draw readers in and provoke a reaction, b. to develop/change a character or 3. to convey a setting or historical period.


In terms of character development I don't really think that the violence in the Orenda was essential. In fact I thought more character development happened during less violent scenes. like the scene where Snow Falls cuts off her finger and birds - it's violent, but only slightly, and it has a huge impact on her character and her bond with Bird. And while the extreme torture scenes certainly conveyed a particular setting I didn't really feel that they changed the characters a whole lot (except perhaps in the case of Christophe but, well......he dies).

Marianne Trench

Hi all: I just read your blog review Christina and wow, I don't see it the way you do..I can't agree with the idea that the book " depicts an Indigenous nation as responsible for its own destruction"..I re-read the 3 'spirit' parts to see if I could get the reference and there's a lot to each of them with much food for thought but I can't see any connection with self-destruction..except..there is the bit about a seed planted that grows to cause harm.." And when they cawed that our magic was unclean, we laughed, took a little offence, even killed a few of them and pulled their feathers for our hair.  We lived on. Bur that word, unclean, that word, somehow, like an illness, like its own magic, it began to grow..Very few of us saw that coming."  and this is from the first page of the resonates way more for me re-reading it now but I still don't see a tone of culpability or an "alleviation of responsibility for the harm done by colonialism" (from Christina's blog) ..anyone else?


Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Hey Marianne, thanks for your comment! My main source for that part of my argument in the blog post came from a few moments throughout the novel where people acknowledge that the war with the Haudenosaunee is based on revenge. This mainly comes from Bird's actions. He kidnaps Snow Falls, which angers the Haudenosaunee, and also botches the meeting where he is supposed to return Snow Falls and the wampum. At one point (I can't find the page right now unfortunately) he asks himself if his actions will be responsible for the downfall of the Wendat. At another point when Sleeps Long and Snow Falls are stuffing her raven Sleeps Long describes the war with the Haudensosaunee as a vicious cycle:

"What the men do, what we do, it's a circle....

(the later on the same page:) how is this grief explained? How is it digested? I have never figured that out. We hurt one another beause we've been hurt...we kill one another because we have been killed. We will continue to eat one another until one of us is completely consumed." 

So in that sense I think that it's implied that the Wendat are responsible for their downfall - because they do things that anger the Haudensosaunee (like the kidnapping of Snow Falls and accepting the Jesuits). 

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Oh and sorry, that quote was from page 194.


Great thread Christina - thanks for this!

Marianne Trench

okay..yes, I see what you mean from that perspective but I guess I never took it as a history (Boyden's book on Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont is packed with play by play on events unfolding) as much as storytelling 'version' where events unfold in a way to illustrate different ideas..(like the wampum going missing because the priest loses it and then Bird deciding to attack) and how he shows the role of chance and small events influencing big ones..

There's also the part where Gosling sees in a vision how Snow Falls father's death bodes a big change in how the future will unfold and I find this fascinating from the perspective of people's individual influence on the way things play out..I think Boyden packs the book with interesting and potent ideas and it's not easy to draw conclusions from it all as much as explore where it could lead..

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Good point. I think that in this novel Boyden really does play with our expectations about history -- it's so hard not to see these things as overdetermined and I think Boyden acknowledges that at points. The characters in the novel can't see where the future will lead even though the reader knows who the history has panned out (and while Gosling does have knowledge of the future she doesn't use it to try to stop Bird from proceeding as he does).

In his review Hayden King is highly critical of the historical innacuracies of the book because the main written source material for this period is the Jesuit Relations, and the Jesuits had a tendency to exaggerate for their readers back in Europe. But Boyden also points this out in the Orenda. On page 87 Christophe starts writing a letter to his superior where we grossly exaggerates how successful he has been in winning converts - he tears it up in frustration but I think Boyden is pointing out that the Relations were exaggerated. 

Marianne Trench

about the violence; I was definitely disturbed by it but I didn't see it as glorified and I felt that he tried to balance it somewhat by also portraying the characters who were traumatized by the violence. In my view, he was trying to convey an historical period and the different cultures were portrayed as equally violent, but technology was becoming a factor with the guns being a game changer..It was more at the individual character level that you saw different responses to violence and the threat of it.  I like the way he chose to contrast the ritual torture aspect with Christian ideology around suffering and especially the crucifixion reference at the end..I think he did a brilliant job of illustrating different views colliding in a way that showed both the possibilities (the love that grows between Snow Falls and Bird) and the limitations ..overall,I found the story so sad in its' depiction of the death of so many because of the smallpox epidemic and I felt relieved by the way he created an element of survival and resilience in the ending..

Christina Turner Christina Turner's picture

Here marks the end of our official discussion, but feel free to share comments if you weren't able to make it this evening.

I read the Orenda a second time for the book club, but I have to say my views on it haven't changed much. I found more nuance and complexity the second time around, but still I conclude: it's a good book, but not Boyden's finest, and problematic for several reasons as the book to change Canada. 


Marianne Trench

I read Hayden King's review again and while I'm lacking a historical understanding of the time period, I can't agree with a lot of his intepretation.  I am inspired though to delve into it a bit as there are a lot of references like Saint Kateri (Snow Fall's child) and Christian Island (Gahoendoe) that are clues left to follow..thanks for sharing your thoughts Christina..


Caissa wrote:

Are your comments historical or in relation to the novel?

In relation to Hayden King's review and other personal communications.
The Haudenosaunee didn't 'destroy' the Wendat: The Jesuits did.