Through mercilessly slaughtering almost an entire family belonging to his enemy nation, the Haudenosaunee, and by stealing away the only surviving dau...moreThrough mercilessly slaughtering almost an entire family belonging to his enemy nation, the Haudenosaunee, and by stealing away the only surviving daughter, Wendat warrior Bird not only seeks vengeance for the murders of his own family, but also seeks to mend his own loneliness. He will take young Snow Falls back to his own village and make her his daughter, whether or not she finds this plan agreeable.
The act of keeping one alive—so that she might bear witness to her captor's flawless ability to judge between life and death—is a pattern replicated throughout Joseph Boyden's The Orenda, itself part of a larger series of patterns, as its publication in 2013 completes the author's multigenerational triptych. Boyden's Three Day Road finds us following Xavier Bird, a Cree sniper for the Canadian troops in Europe during the First World War, who like his warrior ancestor must also navigate his way through a series of life-or-death decisions invoked by another man's conflict, only to survive burdened by a montage of physical, psychological, and spiritual wounds. Through Black Spruce finds us wandering, lost between Moosonee, Toronto, Montreal, and New York, alongside Will, Annie, and Suzanne Bird: Will appears the natural result of father Xavier's damage—drowning in a community eaten up by substance trade and abuse, he spends a good part of the novel in a coma, wavering once again on the decision to be in this world or the next. His two nieces play the part of the family who, despite their own hurt, must "reach out to help" (359).
In The Orenda, Bird’s decisiveness plays a stark contrast against Xavier’s hiddenness and Will’s turbulence in making choices. Boyden impresses upon us the power and intensity of Bird and his people by using both prologue and epilogue to state, “We had the magic before the crows came.” Situated in a flourishing Wendat village, or in what we would now call contact-era (c1620) early Quebec, Bird is a stellar warrior, whose astuteness makes him a revered leader among his people. Even as the arrival of the “crows” (French Jesuit priests) depletes or at least confuses Wendat magic, Bird continues to make astoundingly acute decisions, as he escapes and outthinks both his prey and predator alike, frequently guiding his people to safety in the process.
And yet, Bird is far from perfect. Instead of allowing his novel to become a simple story with a message, and instead of perpetuating the myth of ‘noble savage vs. white aggressor,’ Boyden carefully complicates his narrative so that at points throughout the reader sees clarity, logic, and compassion in the thoughts and actions of head crow Père Christophe, who could have otherwise become the novel’s Christian manipulator or simpleton. (In Jesus-speak, it turns out Christophe walks the talk.) Also an intelligent choice, Boyden does not make the crows wholly responsible for rupturing, or at least challenging, the ways of the Wendat. Surveying a flurry of fatal conflict about him, Bird comes of his own accord to a point of self-doubt, if not confession, as he is forced to review his pre-contact decisions and actions: “Did I do this . . . ?” ultimately can only lead to apologies, suggesting admission and guilt.
In Boyden’s world, everyone is complicit and responsible for his own actions, regardless of race or agenda. In Boyden’s world, perhaps, miscommunication and confusion necessarily result from the meeting of two different groups, whether that meeting be between Wendat and Haudenosaunee, or between Aboriginal and European, or as Christophe reminds his fellow Jesuits, between Crusaders and Moors, or the Church and witches burned at the stake. In such meetings, perhaps, we ought not to resort immediately to massacre, harrassment, or torture (hauntingly called “carressing” by the Wendat), for to do so rarely eradicates difference, but rather is a flawed attempt “to excise the fear we all have of death” itself (256)—something that, in the end, none of us will escape in any case. As Snow Falls recognizes, it rarely makes sense to be “bent on destroying one another” when we “speak similar tongues and grow the same food and hunt the same game”—an especially pertinent reminder from a character whose greatest struggle has been to reconcile her identity as a member of two warring nations. The experience, of course, is reminiscent of those acknowledged by Canada’s Métis, with whom author Boyden identifies.