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Novel uses three narrators to recreate dark era in pre-Canadian history

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With The Three Day Road (2005) followed by Through Black Spruce (2008), Ontario's Joseph Boyden established himself as a writer who conjures masterfully with several facets of 20th-century Canadian history and culture, bringing indigenous characters and especially voices never before heard or seen to our contemporary fiction.

In these first two novels of what was broadly conceived as a trilogy, Boyden first gives us the traumatic experience of native characters during the First World War, and then their descendants' painful inheritance of those scars. Those novels deserved every award they won, and they won many, at home and abroad.

However, it had not been evident until The Orenda (the term signifies the spiritual force informing the indigenous world view -- a waning force in danger throughout of disappearing) that Boyden, who now lives part of each year in New Orleans, could mobilize his considerable narrative powers to engage such a formidable project as this novel.

The Orenda seeks with remarkable success to recreate one of the darkest eras of pre-Canadian history: the Jesuits' ill-fated missions among the Huron and Iroquois in the mid-1600s.

Anyone acquainted with E.J. Pratt's great epic poem Br©beuf and His Brethren (this should be required reading in high schools across the country, but don't hold your breath) or Brian Moore's 1985 novel Black Robe will immediately recognize the story Boyden narrates, but with a vital difference.

Crucial to The Orenda are its complex and adventurous narrative tactics. The story is narrated by three voices:

-- "Crow" (this is what the Jesuit fr®res or priests are called, contemptuously, by the natives they seek to convert), who gives us his inflected version, addressed principally to his superiors in France.

-- Bird, the warrior leader of a Huron village who narrates another version of the story, addressed to his dead wife, killed in an attack by the Haudenosaunee, part of the Iroquois family.

-- Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee girl who becomes Bird's adopted daughter, and then a woman during the course of this story. Snow Falls narrates her version of the story to her dead parents, killed at the novel's outset by Bird and his men.

Because the narrators address offstage interlocutors who haunt all the stories as spectres of loss and of longing for reunions in death, the effect is of a mounting force of foreboding.

This culminates in what seems by novel's end to have become inevitable, both for readers aware of the history informing the novel and for those who have been attentive to the gathering tensions.

These tensions are natural, religious, tribal and cultural. They also appear to have become deeply irreconcilable.

But the most striking quality of these narrators' voices is their several versions of intimacy. These are stories told at eye and ground level, and they are told as if by relations.

Each of the narrators is gripped by the conflict between a grudging respect for the other tribe, faction, village or priest, and, alternately, by the enmity that both strangles and binds them. These are, broadly writ, family tensions.

And finally, this is a strong and simple (if three-part) novel about family. Pity that what should by now be a familiar story for Canadians -- literally and figuratively -- might still strike so many of us as rarified and remote.

It's neither, and that Boyden has brought it so much closer to home represents a victory him, for our fiction, and for our reading public, who might by novel's end also aspire to engage, but idly no more, with what is in reality a long, shared, and co-created history and culture.

Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is provost and vice-president academic and international at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 A1

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