An outsider’s view of outsiders

Joseph Boyden creates characters plucked from moments in history

Joseph Boyden’s novels are all about place. They are anchored not only in the wilds of Canada (for the most part) but they are tied to the First Nations consciousness of a homeland. So it’s funny that Boyden who lives in New Orleans stays away from these places in order to better understand and write about them. For his latest novel The Orenda which has been nominated for a Governor General’s literary award he took that notion to another level.

“The novel began in an airplane” he says from yet another hotel room on his book tour. “I wrote the first number of chapters while travelling. Airplanes — I don’t know what it was but something clicked. It might have been the lack of oxygen or something.

“Writing in this incredibly contemporary situation this kind of ancient tale was fascinating to me in a way.”

The Orenda tells the story of long arduous canoe trips through enemy territory of punishment and pride of survival in a harsh climate and of the clash of cultures. It is the story of the Huron before they were essentially decimated in 1649 as told through the experiences of three characters: Bird a respected Huron war leader; Snow Falls his adopted/kidnapped Iroquois daughter; and Christophe a determined Jesuit.

Like Boyden’s two other novels Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce The Orenda weaves different narratives together. In this case we see death from three sides we see fear and hunger from three sides and we see how three cultures forced together will have difficulty seeing eye to eye.

Unlike his two other novels this one is not directly linked to the Bird Family Trilogy. While they focus on a member of that family The Orenda stands apart sort of.

“Somebody at the National Post called it a spiritual precursor to the other novels which I thought was a nice way to put it” says Boyden.

“All of my books I think are stand-alone — that’s the plan anyways — but if you read them all you’ll get a bigger perspective of this imaginary world.”

If there’s another thing that ties his novels together it’s the focus on outsiders as central characters. In this case there’s Bird whose status sets him apart in his village his Iroquois daughter whose culture and character mark her as different and of course Christophe the bearded white man with his strange ways and strange religion. Boyden says he doesn’t focus on the outsiders on purpose but it’s also a part of his own character.

“I sometimes feel like a bit of an outsider you know with my living in New Orleans. I purposefully live in New Orleans to get a better view of my country. Much of the year I’m down there” he says before pausing.

“Huh I never really thought of it but I’m not status [Indian] but it is a really important part of who I am” he continues. “Sometimes you can’t help but feel like a bit of an outsider.”

In The Orenda this outsider status is either due to status in the tribe as in the case of Bird or it bestows a sort of strength as in the case of Snow Falls and Christophe. At one point Snow Falls ruminates on the power that comes from causing strangers to step back and stare but the novel seems unconcerned with whether that awe comes from oddness or status.

The outsiders that Boyden focuses on in The Orenda are distinct plucked from a moment in history but not a part of it. They are creations of Boyden’s own mind but with a strong historical backing.

“You’re almost shackling yourself by basing a character on a real-life person” he says. “I didn’t want to be shackled that way. I wanted the freedom to be able to do things or to have him [Christophe] do things that wouldn’t have really happened to [Jean de] Brébeuf for example or to Isaac Jogues or to any of the Jesuits that were martyred as the Catholics call it.”

Boyden as with his previous work jumped into the writing process without getting bogged down in research reaching out to experts who could give him guidance and perspective when it came to historical accounts.

As with his literary license in terms of historical characters the underlying theme of The Orenda has the ability to shift between a sort of fact and fiction as well. Orenda refers to the spirit that natives of the Great Lakes region believe infuse all things living and otherwise — from rocks and tools to animals and people. When the French and the Jesuits arrive with their belief only in the soul of man and the power of only one god the lines are drawn in a spiritual battle with real world consequences.

That struggle is intended and will be read by most as metaphor — as the destruction of the First Nations way of life by the European newcomers — but for many it is just as grounded in reality as the novel’s historical accounts. “How I view the world is very much as the native characters in the novel do that not just humans have soul that everything has orenda everything has life force” says Boyden who was raised Catholic. “The Ojibwa call it Manitou. I’m a strong believer in that.”

He’s also a strong believer in pacing himself when it comes to his writing ensuring that his well is full when he decides to sit back in front of a keyboard. His experience of working with three editors to finish this book likely drained a great deal of his reserves but he says the experience was positive including an exhaustive line-by-line edit by Cormac McCarthy’s editor Gary Fisketjon.

“He said ‘you’ve got it all done but I’ve got a few line-by-line comments’ and every page of my manuscript was covered in his famous green ink” says Boyden. “I found out I’m not the only one he does this with everyone. So that was huge. It was a lot of work in a very short time from when I finished the draft to it coming out in September.”

Despite that Boyden intends to get back to work as soon as possible likely working on the next and potentially last tale in the Bird family lineage — a finale to his incredibly successful first two novels — although to say definitively that the next Bird family book will be the end might be a little too concrete — after all Boyden never really intended to pursue this fictional family in the first place.

“It’s not something I planned when I first started writing Three Day Road at all but I realized soon after that there was a lot more this family had to say. And it’s almost like they’re telling me I have to do it. I don’t have control anymore. It’s more that they control me.”

Wordfest presents Joseph Boyden as part of the Banff Distinguished Author Series on Saturday October 19 at the Eric Harvie Theatre at The Banff Centre.