In the last year two powerful novels have captivated Canadian readers. Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle chronicle the complex relationships between Aboriginal and European-based culture. Boyden, of Scottish, Irish and Anishinaabe heritage, writes from the U.S. about First Nations people in his homeland. King, part Cherokee, part Greek, born U.S. citizen, now Canadian, teaches in Guelph and ran for Parliament.
Both novels, placed four centuries apart, describe crises of Aboriginal culture, its gradual dissolution, dislocation and near destruction. Both show Indians (a term used by both writers) today learning through painful loss how to find home in violently imposed European civilization without losing their remaining identity.
Fittingly, Boyden and King live what they write. Both have made new homes for themselves, even as they both have settled far from their birthplaces. Both write in hope that their people can do the same.
Boyden’s growing work
Though he grew up in Willowdale, Ontario, Boyden and wife Amanda now teach in New Orleans. They live in northern Ontario some months of the year, finding and organizing the stuff that finds life in his novels. Three Day Road and Giller Prize winner Through Black Spruce comprise two of a planned trilogy. The Orenda interrupted that string – or stands as the trilogy’s imagined backstory. A year ago The Orenda won CBC’s annual and always provocative “Canada Reads,” after Wab Kinew’s articulate and fierce advocacy trampled the other novels during the broadcast debates.
The Orenda leads readers through the intertwining lives of three characters – Bird (or Osprey), a Wendat (Wyandot Huron) warrior; Snow Falls, a captive Haudenosee (Iroquois) girl; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary. The book moves breathtakingly through their violent lives. Boyden’s casts the chapters as first-person narratives, vividly revealing the characters’ differently perceived thoughts and feelings as cultures clash. Boyden presents Fr. Christophe’s journals as formally written notebooks to present to superiors in order to continue mission work in this new world.
Characters in conflicting relationships
In Boyden’s remarkable craft, each protagonist develops their own uniquely recognizable tone, cadences and vocabulary. All chapters interlock, but in strange chronology. One chapter describes an episode that all the characters are experiencing, the next continuing that same event from the perspective of another participant. Destructive misunderstandings often result.
For example, when Fr. Christophe describes his own actions following a battle, he bends over slain warriors, making the sign of the cross. In the following chapter Bird, calling the priest “Crow” because of his black robes, describes that act as shameless “pecking at those poor men’s foreheads, trying to gain something for himself from their dying bodies” (110). In such vivid passages, Boyden expresses the tragic perplexity of miscommunicating cultures that caused centuries of mutual ignorance and enmity.
For his part, Fr. Christophe often describes the horrible torture that Iroquois and Wendat inflict on each other. He never comprehends why the victims silently endure as they face death fearlessly. In fact, they even welcome the food the torturers provide to prolong the ordeal over several days (250-256). Yet Fr. Christophe never once considers the barbarity contemporary inquisitors in Europe meted on alleged heretics.
Regardless, Boyden’s characters slowly grow, showing genuine, sympathetic mutual understanding. Fr. Christophe progresses from baby talk in Wendat to self-trained interpreter. Bird grudgingly admires, yet he recognizes that linguistic gift as the “tip of the spear . . . for earthly gains.” The culture clash deepens inexorably.
Sobering views of Aboriginal and European culture
Throughout Orenda Boyden artfully depicts conflicting worldviews of Aboriginal and European culture leading to changes neither side can control. In plaintive words to Fr. Gabriel, medicine woman Gosling rues the inevitable change of historical eras. She prophesies the eventual collision: “You’re upsetting a balance generations in the making” (162).
For all the pathos as Aboriginal culture morphs so quickly, Boyden never portrays it as something once pure and now sullied. Rather, he shows how the natives actively participate in the new epoch. Sometimes they do so willingly, demanding muskets for inter-tribal warfare. At other times in they do anything to survive another winter, even going to the French for emergency rations. Such desperation continues today, through little thick and much thin?
Orenda stands on its own merits as an enthralling page-turner, steeped in the clash between differing cultures and views of history. At book’s end, readers come to know and identify with characters on their own terms. The only thing certain about their future as individuals and as cultures is that all have become something they hadn’t been only decades before. That is Boyden’s sad, but only darkly hopeful vision.
Enter Thomas King
Orenda doesn’t stand alone, though, in the harvest of recent Aboriginal writing. In late 2013 Thomas King’s latest novel The Back of the Turtle put that multi-talented writer and broadcaster back atop Canada’s literary world hardly two years after his idiosyncratically erudite The Inconvenient Indian. That sometimes gut-busting, sometimes gut-wrenching account relentlessly chronicles King’s unique version of native history. Though not technical scholarship, its litanies of past treaty betrayals and intentional marginalization grab readers by the scruff of the neck as King weeps with his people. It also kicks people of colour – like me – in the shins. As King evocatively welcomes all readers to run alongside him, we wonder how many treaties are yet to be broken.
Back of the Turtle – comic companion to Orenda
Then comes Back of the Turtle, King’s current best-seller. Here readers keep chasing his wild and witty efforts. Page after page, King describes in infuriating detail an ecological disaster at Kali Creek in Smoke River, a West Coast First Nations’ reserve. The culprit is Gabriel Quinn, a brilliant chemist, born in Smoke River, raised in Canada and the U.S. Years before, Quinn intentionally abandoned his native roots. As a scientist for Dorian Asher’s multi-national industrial evil empire, he synthesized a pesticide that was later dumped without trials or oversight onto his birth home’s watershed. Turtle chronicles Quinn’s agonizing quest for his lost heritage as a pilgrimage towards self- and communal redemption.
In the hands of most writers, this heavy stuff could turn into a soulless 21st century muckraker. But King’s slicing wit pulls readers deep into his angry cry against thoughtless industrial destruction of entire eco-systems, while he also mourns Quinn’s early choice to sell his soul to materialist industrialism.
Yet villains don’t win the day. Somehow King narrates this tale with hilarious, yet touching characters, such as autistic Sonny. One of few Smoke River residents who stayed after the pollution, Sonny shines as a beacon of quirky hope. He builds a strange tower on the beach in hopes of re-attracting sea turtles back to breed on the slowly healing creek and beaches – and they do begin to show up slowly.
As I read, I boiled with anger, then often guffawed sentences later at King’s tragically hopeful tale. Turtle’s compelling plot sharply focuses on events and characters with indelible imaginative fiction. His fictional version of the results of centuries-long deterioration of aboriginal culture reads like plausible fantasy. He promises no easy resurrection or reconciliation with industrial society, but consistently sees better days ahead.
Humour as glasses to see hope for the future
Anyone who remembers King’s outrageous, rip-roaring Dead Dog Café on CBC can legitimately hope for Aboriginal life’s future. As King prods and pokes, profound self-aware humour is the fitting vehicle to travel towards that future. High book sales tell me I am not alone in being glad to be teased, yet taken seriously as a reader.
In these books, no one is innocent. Both fit on the must-read list of people who need insight into both Aboriginal culture and todays’ ever-changing Canadian mosaic. As part of that fascinating process, these books provide a good grasp on the troubled meeting of Aboriginal and Western cultures over centuries. The saddest part of the history of that collision is that Europeans so often disguised their methods as Christian. Sometimes willingly and wittingly, at others naively, Christ’s ambassadors often become pawns of imperial forces as evil at base as anything in so-called pagan cultures.