Around the world reading challenge- Book 1: The Orenda

Thanks to taking up the Around the World Reading Challenge 2015, I am writing about books, something I have not done since having to write essays in high school English. I hope it isn’t too painful. Five more to go, spread out through the year.

The book that I am using for my yoga quilt, Underground Railroad Sampler,  is centred around a myth about the use of quilt codes during the time of the Underground Railroad. I was hoping that the first book I chose to read for the challenge, The Orenda would be a better representation of history, even though in this case it is clearly a work of fiction. Wanting to know more, a google search brought up criticisms by historians that both books have many problematic historical inaccuracies.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda is a novel. It is not trying to be a historical scholarly work and shouldn’t be taken that way. Last year it won Canada Reads on cbc. I heard most of the show on the radio. Much was made of the violence in the story and it was something that I did not look forward to. It was argued by the book’s defender, Wab Kinew, that the violence was misunderstood and was a part of the native world view that needed to be appreciated in context. I decided not to read this one in bed and instead spent time on the couch with this book late into the night.

I thought the book revealed a common humanity in all parties involved, portraying darkness and strengths of natives and Europeans. Pema Chodron writes: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of the others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Having just played “my word is…” I noticed the word of the title “Orenda”. I could not guess another person’s word, although I have to admit I did wonder. It was always better to ask and find out. Another game we may play often, is one where we label others instead. I was reminded of the importance of listening and being heard and how often we are just wrong about all sorts of things we might guess or assume or misunderstand on the way to understanding if we do truly listen to one another. From the opening of the novel we have the suggestion that the Europeans were playing the second game,

But that word, unclean, that word, somehow like an illness, like its own magic, it began to grow. Very few of us saw that coming. So maybe this is the story of those few.”

Joseph Boyden reads the opening preamble in the video below and sets the stage of the book. He closes the novel with a call to look at what is going on today with the eyes that also see how the story began long ago. Not to blame either side, but to see clearly and act wisely today. It is a captivating fictional story that brings history vividly to life, a subject that I did not enjoy in school and then neglected later on.

But some knowledgable critics say it is not researched well enough and convince me that I need to do more reading. Some would say that the portrayal of the parties involved is inaccurate and flawed in fundamental ways.

Peggy Blair, a doctorate in aboriginal law and history, is concerned about people like me when she says,

Boyden is a master at world-building. He draws us into the story and keeps our interest. He creates characters who are sympathetic. And he makes them, and the story, believable.Which I guess is the crux of my problem.  There are people reviewing this book who think the history is accurate; that it’s an important depiction of what happened following “first contact” between First Nations and Europeans.”

Blair points out several historical flaws around Iroquois and Huron culture and relations, as well as the underplaying of the brutality of the French who engaged in practices such as drawing and quartering prisoners and throwing Iroquois children onto fires. She summarizes the views of two aboriginal reviewer of the Orenda:

Review by Hayden King.

Review from the blog AN ONKWEHONWE IN KANATA 

Looks like some history straight up will be on my reading list in the future. For that I am grateful to these books and google and these historians, bloggers and other writers who care to speak out.

Next on my list is a children’s book in Korean with accompanying cassette tape. Luckily, my car has a cassette tape player.

Please let me know if you have any suggestions for authors from Asia, Europe, Australia, South America or Africa.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar
    March 22, 2015

    Sounds like a fascinating book! Thanks for joining my challenge.

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