I recently read about 50 pages of detailed description of torture. Three quarters of the way through Joseph Boyden’s novel, The Orenda, I realized, Hey, I’m willingly reading a lot of torture. It would be a grave error to describe The Orenda primarily through its Native Canadian tribe-on-tribe torture, and the more gratifying torture of the French colonists who settled in Canada, but I’d have to say that for me, as a reader, that was the type of writing in this book that is most unusual for me to read. Joseph is a beautiful lyrical-prose literary fiction writer, and so even the torture is gorgeously described, words that caress, just as the Native Canadians called their torture “caresses.” There is so much nuance within the physical descriptions of broken and removed fingers, stabbings, bludgeoning, burns, amputations, cauterized wounds, boiling water and pitch, burning- interspersed with lovingly nursing the victim to keep them alive for more. There is respect in every page of this novel. Respect for the Huron, Wendat and Haudenosaunee Native peoples of Canada, respect for the land, trees, animals, water, canoes, children, sexuality, culture, dreams, colonists, religion and yes, for the torture. Joseph Boyden depicts a world, seventeenth century Canada, called New France by the colonists, that he doesn’t simplify or condemn. He opens the world for the reader to be there and to bear witness and to learn.
I few weeks ago I wrote here about wanting to read the books of several friends which I hadn’t read yet. I started with The Orenda, and I’m so glad I did. One reason I’m glad is that it turned out I had a spontaneous trip to New Orleans in the last few weeks and I read a lot of The Orenda in New Orleans. I know Joseph Boyden through New Orleans and he mostly lives there, and I loved reading his book in the city where it was primarily written, lying outside by a pool in the French Quarter, turning the pages, drinking coffee at Café DuMonde dog-earing my spot, toting it with me to Louis Armstrong Park, and on the streetcar up to the Audubon Zoo or in a flat-bottomed swamp boat. I’m tempted to post a photo of my copy of The Orenda- it’s water-logged, dog-eared, and coffee stained.
I didn’t get to see Joseph while in New Orleans; he was travelling himself. But I felt so close to my friend while I read his book, and yet I didn’t think about him. The Wendat chief Bird, and his closest friend Fox, his kidnapped, adopted daughter Snow Falls, and the French Jesuit priest Cristophe Crow, the dreams, the tamed raccoon, the battles and torture, the newborn babies, the hunting, the disease, the spiritual healer Gosling, were all I thought about, just as Joseph intended.