TORONTO - Acclaimed author Joseph Boyden says his highly anticipated new novel, "The Orenda," closes a chapter on a goal he's had his entire life.
On sale Tuesday, the story is an arresting fictional look at the sometimes brutal conflict between the Jesuits, the Huron-Wendat Nation and the Iroquois in the New World of the mid-1600s.
It's a rich period of history Boyden — who has Irish, Scottish and Metis roots — has been fascinated with since childhood, when he learned about it as a student at Toronto's Jesuit-run Brebeuf College School.
Boyden also spent his childhood summers on Beckwith Island in Ontario's picturesque Georgian Bay area. Beckwith overlooks Christian Island, where Hurons fled with Jesuit missionaries during battle with the Iroquois.
"I think it's one of a number of books I've wanted to write all my life," he said in a recent telephone interview. "But certainly it's one that I've thought about all of my life and wanted to write and had to wait until it was the right time to do it."
That time came after Boyden's novel "Through Black Spruce" won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize just two years after his debut effort, "Three Day Road," landed the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award. Both novels also explore aboriginal themes.
Boyden was of course thrilled to win the Giller, but he admits he became "depressed" after coming down from the high and feeling pressure to begin another project.
It took him 2 1/2 years to write the first 50 pages of "The Orenda," but then "the floodgates opened" and he went on to craft a nearly 500-page epic tale he feels is his "most accomplished novel."
"It's the first time I feel like I've matured finally as a writer," he said from New Orleans, where he lives when he's not in northern Ontario. "I'm not worried about the reviews, I'm not worried about any of it, because I really feel in my heart that this is the book I was meant to write, and it's a strong book.
"My wife, Amanda, who is my best editor, she thinks the same thing, so that makes me feel good as well."
"The Orenda," which means "the soul" or "life force," details the first contact in Canada between Europe and aboriginal people through three main characters.
There's Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary determined to spread his religion to local tribes who call him "Crow" in reference to his flowing robe.
Bird is the calculating Huron warrior leader whose wife and children died at the hands of the rival Iroquois.
And Snow Falls is the young and spiritually gifted Iroquois girl Bird kidnapped along with Christophe in an act of revenge against the Haudenosaunee.
As the grieving Bird tries to take Snow Falls in as his own daughter, she and Christophe integrate themselves into the Huron village that's part of five separate but unified nations on Wendake land that Samuel de Champlain wants to conquer.
The Hurons are key traders, but their fortunes begin to fall when drought and illness arrive along with the threat of war from the Iroquois. Meanwhile, Christophe begins to gain power as more of his missionaries arrive and help him set up their own village.
Boyden did extensive research for the book, consulting with experts including Georges E. Sioui, the great Wendat elder and professor. Christophe is loosely inspired by the French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebeuf.
Boyden delivers some graphic descriptions of the brutal fights between the Hurons, Iroquois and Jesuits. He admits such scenes were tough for him to write and are "not an easy read."
"It might not be a summer beach read, but I still think it's a good story. That's what I'm always aiming for, is tell a good story first and everything else will fall into place."
Plus, he "didn't want to ignore the elephant in the room," which was that unmerciful battles and torture did take place between tribes.
"Getting to know the history as implicitly as I feel I have, I realize that things like torture — Iroquois-Huron torture of each other — was certainly a fact of life, but it wasn't an everyday occurrence at all," said Boyden. "It was something that happened rarely, but when it did happen it was done in an honouring way."
The Iroquois people, while great warriors, also created the Great Law of Peace and had a sense of diplomacy during battle. They didn't necessarily want to kill if they didn't have to, he said.
"I wanted to get that in because I was warned by everyone, by the elders, by historians, 'Don't paint the Iroquois as some kind of blood-thirsty savages. Make sure that they're complex and fair in their dealings,' and I hope I did that."
The book also reflects on what Boyden calls "the first arms race," in which the Europeans offered rifles to the Iroquois and the Hurons.
While it's a story of the country's past, it also touches on contemporary themes including immigration, environment and economic policy.
"The fur trade is like our current-day tar sands or oil sands situation, where we see the fast buck in something that's incredibly environmentally damaging and is short-term and short-sighted," said Boyden.
Religion is another big theme in the novel as it explains how the Hurons believe an energy and life force exists in everything, while the Jesuits believe only humans have a soul.
Boyden said he was raised a Catholic, but in his adulthood he's been leaning more toward the Ojibwa structure of the world and of religion.
"This is the two sides of who I am, and so that's why the story, I wanted them all to be complex and have their failings but also have their positive aspects to them as well."
The prologue, which Boyden said acts like a Greek chorus in the three-act novel, also points to contemporary issues specifically facing First Nations communities, including addiction. And the novel includes scenes in which some Hurons become addicted to the Jesuits' alcohol, something Boyden said is straight from the history books.
"As soon as the Europeans arrived they brought their brandy with them and their rum and they realized this is a great bartering tool for some of them, to the point that it was banished. Shortly after first contact, a lot of First Nations tribes said, 'No, don't drink that poison, look what it does.' So this cuts right to the beginning of things."
Still, Boyden didn't aim to place blame, and readers might find themselves feeling a sense of compassion for all characters.
"I didn't want there to be the white hats and the black hats," he said. "I wanted to create characters that are fully dimensional and have their foibles as well as their heroics.
"I didn't want Christophe the Jesuit to be painted as this negative character, I didn't want Bird to come off as this savage heathen, I didn't want Snow Falls to come off as the Indian princess. We're always, constantly, writers are fighting the cliches, the stereotypes that have been set up.
"So I really, really wanted to bring alive a part of our history that I think is incredibly important for our country in my own small way."
And he has plans for more.
Boyden said he wants to write a companion novel to "The Orenda" while he pens a CBC-TV series that's in development.
He's also working on adaptations to his previous two books: He and his wife wrote the screenplay for "Three Day Road" and want actor-director Edward James Olmos to helm, and former MP/producer Tina Keeper has the rights to develop "Through Black Spruce."
"And I'm sure with 'The Orenda,' something will happen for sure," said Boyden. "There's interest and I think it would make for a good film, in whatever form that might take. So there's lot of really good stuff going on."
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