Saturday, November 30, 2013

“What is the one novel that could change our nation?”

Whatever one makes of CBC's Canada Reads contest,* the question it poses this year is a jolly thought-provocation. And although I've not yet finished the novel, I am gratified to see Joseph Boyden's The Orenda among the contenders.

Contenders: Wabi Kinew (left) defends
Joseph Boyden (right)

I intend to produce an attentive critique later, but here are a few early, superficial observations on (appropriately enough) the packaging:

Book blurb — here it is, in its entirety:

From the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Through Black Spruce comes a literary masterpiece — a defining, epic story of first contact between radically different worlds, steeped in the natural beauty and brutality of our country's formative years.

The Orenda opens with the kidnapping of Snow Falls, a spirited Iroquois girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation's great warriors and statesmen. Although it's been years since the murder of his family members, they're never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter; he sees that the girl possesses powerful magic, something useful to him and his people on the troubled road ahead. The Huron Nation has battled the Iroquois for as long as Bird can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous peril from afar.

Christophe does not see himself as a threat, however. A charismatic Jesuit missionary, he has found his calling amongst the Huron, devoting himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. As an emissary from distant lands, he brings much more, though, than his faith to the new world.

As these three souls dance one another through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars, and a nation emerges from worlds in flux. Powerful and deeply moving, The Orenda traces a story of blood and hope, suspicion and trust, hatred and love. A saga nearly four hundred years old, it is at its roots timeless and eternal.

God love the hacks who write this blather, but sheesh: does this ever dampen my desire to read the book. “Literary masterpiece . . . steeped in the natural beauty and brutality of our country's formative years . . . three souls dance one another through intricately woven acts of duplicity . . . timeless and eternal.” This pitch is aimed at the Forest Hill Book Club set, assuring them that Boyden retains his capacity to engage, while ratcheting up the social significance factor. In other words, don’t worry: it’s good for you.

I’m more of a “If it’s good to you, it’s good for you” sort of reader: to determine whether or not I’ll give a book a go, this style of blurb makes me work harder than I’d like. But there remain signifiers that I’ll probably dig this. First of all, I occasionally enjoy taking on Big Ideas. The intersection where a Pantheist culture first encounters a Monotheist evangelist and his culture ought to be pertinent. Throw in some sex and violence, and I’m all yours. “Brutal” assures me of the latter, but Canadian publishers remain prim about reader prurience, alas. Thankfully, I’ve read Boyden’s other work. He’s a candid, primal-urges sort of dude — so count me in.

Could The Orenda “change our nation”? That's all speculation, of course, but in Boyden's writing there is a distinctive moral heat quite similar to Victor Hugo's (whose Les Miserables unquestionably spurred significant changes in his nation). Also, The Orenda brings to mind — in a salutary way — John Gardner's assertion: “No ignoramus — no writer who has kept himself innocent of education — has ever produced great art. One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies.” Boyden, also a writing teacher (even Scotiabank Giller Prize-winners have to pay the bills), clearly does understand just how ancient his chosen arguments are, and comprehends the issues of dignity and worth with greater depth and sensitivity than do most of his lit-fic contemporaries.

But let's skitter back to the surface of things. Here's the (Canadian) dust-jacket for the hardcover:

That appears to be a dense rainforest of birch trees (or maybe poplar, but I doubt it). Again, I'm not encouraged by the art, even if I can understand the “why” of it. For my tastes it evokes too much of Can-Lit's “Lamp At Noon” all-is-lost dreariness. But that's just me. To compare, there isn't a single cover to any of Jim Harrison's novels** that appeals to me, either, but I usually devour whatever he produces.

There's a solution to every problem, though — take off the jacket:

Handsome looking book, no? More to follow.

*I think Canada Reads is usually a well-executed novelty: an “insider's view” of a Literary Contest. It doesn't always work (last year was a bust), but usually it's an entertaining nudge to get me reading one or two contempo-Can-lit novels I would have otherwise given a pass.

**The cover to Harrison's memoirs, however, is a winner.

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