Joseph Boyden. If you are an American, this may be the first time you have heard this Canadian writer’s name. It will almost certainly not be the last. Boyden, who is part Ojibwa Indian, published his third novel The Orenda in Canada in September, and it has been a runaway bestseller here ever since. For reasons known only to his American publisher, the book will not come out until May in the U.S., but we live in a wired world so you can simply order the book from Amazon.ca or Amazon.uk, where the book became available in November.
The Orenda — the title refers to the Indian word for “soul” or “life force” — uses fiction to retell the foundation myth of Canada, and, by extension, all of North America, putting Native people back at the center of the story where they belong. The novel, set in the mid-1600s during the French conquest of what is now Ontario, Canada, is told by three rotating narrators: a proud and violent Huron warrior named Bird, a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls whom Bird adopts as his own after slaughtering her family, and a devout French Jesuit priest named Christophe who is based on the historical figure St. Jean de Brebéuf.
I have written about The Orenda before for The Millions, and I will almost certainly do so again when the book has its American release in May. I apologize in advance for repeating myself, but in a literary culture beset by endless hype, logrolling, and backscratching, it is rare to find the genuine article: a truly necessary book. The Orenda sheds new light on the dark crime at the heart of all North American history, but more important than that, it renders the ostensible victims of that crime, the Indians, as complex, fully realized human beings.
Every day while I was reading an advance copy of The Orenda this summer, I drove past a billboard advertising The Lone Ranger, which showed Johnny Depp in war paint with a dead crow inexplicably plopped on top of his head. That’s why Boyden’s work is necessary. We all know Depp’s Tonto is a travesty, and the movie justifiably tanked at the box office, but we don’t as a culture seem to know what to put in the place of that war-whooping savage that filled the screen of the million-and-one Westerns we all watched on TV as kids. In The Orenda, Joseph Boyden is quietly, brilliantly showing us the way.
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