The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

the  OrendaWe had magic before the crows came.

Joseph Boyden begins The Orenda with an allusion to the lost world of Huronia that is suggestive of a certain insight proposed in John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence: the world was not always what it has since become. Huronia, the land of the Wendat nation, has since vanished, along with their magic ties to orenda, the life force the suffuses all things, living and dead. Whether The Orenda is a historical fantasy is debatable–there are magic tricks, dream prophesies, and prayers and libations of all kinds, though none or very few unexplainable by science. However, The Orenda is certainly a historical novel, and therefore invested in showing us a forgotten world and time.

Before the arrival of the crows–the Jesuit missionaries who first called First Nations magic unclean–the Wendat had a power that the Christian European world could not comprehend. This is what the Jesuit priest Père Christophe discovers while living away from the security of the settlement of Kebec, behind a Wendat palisade deep in the woods. This ‘primitive’ village is the primal setting of the Canadian consciousness, at least according to Margaret Atwood in her 1970s book Survival, and thus promises to be a gripping Canadian epic.

The first heart-stopping sequence sets the tone for the rest of the novel with the brutal slaughter of the family of a young girl. Snow Falls witnesses her father sing his death song as his skull is bashed in by a club and he falls, arms outstretched and blood pooling around his head. The man who committed the murder is Fox, brother of Bird, who is a respected war chief of the local Wendat village. Bird is at war with the Haudenosaunee, who soon pursue him to avenge Snow Fall’s capture.  As the war party trudges away through the snow, Christophe carries Snow Falls to safety and tries to win her trust.  Despite her rebellion, he sees her father, splayed in the same shape as he fell when he died, in the silver crucifix around the Jesuit’s neck. It is implied that she believes her father’s orenda has come to rest in the crucifix. This belief in the orenda is what defines her people as different from Christophe’s.

‘Orenda’ is the closest word the Wendat have for ‘soul,’ though it also implies ‘power’ and is a mystical force that unites not only humans, but all things–trees, animals, stones. You could also say the orenda is like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, which borrows ideas from world religion,  or Polynesian ‘mana.’ The difference between Christian soul and Huron orenda proves to be a vast gap that must be bridged if Christophe is to save the ‘savage’ Wendat from what he sees as the demons of Satan.

Though we see Bird and his brother Fox engaged in committing horrific violence within the first few chapters, we later see them at home in their longhouses with their families. We grow to see these characters as heroes defending their traditional way of life. Though in one sense, Christophe–or Christophe Crow, as the Wendat call him–is the antagonist of this novel, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and admiration for his intelligence and bravery. Snow Falls naturally draws our sympathy as we see her grow from a scared Haudenosaunee orphan into a grown Wendat woman who may one day become a seer.

The Orenda is a novel composed of various heroes who come together as antagonists to each other, because of their cultural differences. Even the enemy who we rarely see, the Haudenosaunee, Bird describes as being not so different from the Wendat. But if every character has a good orenda, then what happens to ruin the magic that the Wendat once had?

The Huron were forced to trade with the Iron People for what were once luxuries that became necessities. Was this another cause in the fall of Huronia?
The Huron were forced to trade with the Iron People for what were once luxuries that became necessities. Was this another cause in the fall of Huronia?

Joseph Boyden poses the question of who’s responsible with a beautifully structured tragedy. Is it Bird’s adoption of Snow Falls that begins the war that will see the end of his world? Is it the disease the Jesuits bring with them? Is it Christophe Crow’s clumsiness? Or was it just a few bad harvests? Boyden sows the seeds of the end in the beginning, as the Wendat sow the seeds of the three sisters–squash, corn, and beans–each spring to be harvested–or burned–in the fall.

At times The Orenda causes you to remember the present social troubles of First Nations by glimpsing the birth of the patterns of destruction that have assailed them ever since. You see alcohol, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and the way of regarding First Nations as “savage” that eventually results in the formation of Residential Schools. All that bloody and painful history has its origins in the fatal story that involves Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe Crow.

Even before I began to read The Orenda, I expected it to be a defining epic of Canadian history, an absolute must-read. I also expected it be similar to the movie Blackrobe. Indeed, several scenes in The Orenda appear to have been either inspired by Blackrobe, or the source material it has in common with it: The Jesuit Relations. But The Orenda goes deeper in describing the ripples the Jesuits caused in Canadian history. The past and future are present, says Aataentsic the Sky Woman.

I saw Blackrobe once in high school at the same time as I studied–too briefly, perhaps–the civilization of First Nations before and during  European contact. I remember learning about all the anthropological points between distinguishing the Algonquins and Iroquois, the genocidal wars the Iroquois won with Dutch muskets, and then New France’s reaction, or rather inaction, regarding the wars. Our schools spend too little time teaching about First Nations history. But The Orenda can satisfy your curiosity about any blank spots in your mental timeline. I personally find the old-school map included in the hardcover edition and the references to Huronia and Kebec (instead of Quebec) work wonderfully at alienating Quebecois readers who are familiar with their country/province so that they can be carried into the perspective of those who lived during that time.

The Orenda is part of Joseph Boyden’s saga of the Bird family, and the first prequel. Certainly the first to go back so early in the history of the family. I have read Through Black Spruce before, a tale of a comatose bushplane pilot (named Bird) who remembers how he dealt with a gang of drug dealers in Northern Ontario while his daughter speaks to him while he recovers in hospital from a crash, recalling her own journey to find her sister. It has the same stark, affecting style as The Orenda and it explores some of the social issues in First Nations communities–issues that we now know go back to the seventeenth century. Three Day Road is another in the saga, a book I may pick up in the future.

The Orenda won Canada Reads in 2014, was a Governor General’s Literary Awards finalist, and made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Orenda‘s orenda is strong. Read it.

Boyden
Joseph Boyden, author of The Orenda

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Photo Credits:

http://grou17.wix.com/fur#!__master-page-3

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Feel disconnected from your childhood lately? Although I am not a licensed psychiatrist, or a doctor of any sort, let me recommend to you The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

Never fear: it is not a pill that is bitter to the taste, although it is certainly not sugar coated. Inviting and familiar, it runs down smooth, putting you right to sleep and bringing you straight into the dream-realm, where you re-experience horrors you may have forgotten from your childhood—or perhaps some you still remember.

“I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things. But I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Such words were spoken by Maurice Sendak in Gaiman’s epigraph to his short novel. The line of dialogue might have been spoken by the protagonist of Ocean.

Like a frequent number of Gaiman’s novels (including American Gods and Anansi Boys), Ocean opens with a funeral. The name of the deceased and the name of the middle-aged narrator are never mentioned. However, from the very first line, we are aware the protagonist has unresolved childhood issues, as he seeks out the old (very old) Hempstock Farm, near the duck pond at the end of the lane near his now-demolished childhood home.

Lettie Hempstock, who was his only friend from when he was seven years old, has moved to Australia. But there is far more to her than meets the eye. She called the duck pond at the end of the lane an ocean, and though she appeared to be twelve years old, she had an ageless look in her eyes and a familiarity with the supernatural world well beyond her years.

Trouble begins when an opal miner from South Africa commits suicide in a stolen car at the end of the lane. The event triggers a series of mysterious happenings. It is not long before the middle-aged man’s seven-year-old self is drawn into the very thick of it. Adventures involving monstrous nannies, thunderstorms, hunger birds, and fairy rings ensue. Lettie is the boy’s only hope of returning to the normal world and he must hold onto her hand for dear life, when faced with terrors that threaten to undo everything he treasures.

In the midst of these horrors, Gaiman writes with poetry and humour. The chapters of The Ocean at the End of the Lane read like highly sensory, nostalgic vignettes, where one indulges in the feeling and breathing in of childhood memories. He does this without becoming a William Wordsworth, leaving Tintern Abbey for the Gothic ruins of another, more dangerous supernatural world.

Me and Neil.
Me and Neil at the Rialto.

Gaiman’s casual mentioning of the impossible creates humour, such as when Old Mrs. Hempstock investigates the age of a coin by looking at it hard enough to see electron decay. That particular moment also made the Rialto Theatre in Montreal burst our laughing, when Gaiman was in town for his book tour—an event I was lucky enough to attend.

Fusing the realistic present-day to the fantastic and the cosmologically ancient has to be Gaiman’s signature way to set up a story. It makes for a combination that causes us to look in our own world for traces of the fantastic. The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminds us of this supernatural presence in our world and invites us to look back upon the dark corners and in-between spaces of our childhood, where we did not always follow the paved, repeatedly-traveled roads that adults follow out of routine.

Many readers who pick up this book will be inspired to run across fields and forests and leap over fences, or, if they prefer, only take the road less traveled. An excellent cure for the ennui of adulthood, Ocean makes for an ideal end-of-summer read.

Neil Gaiman, author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman, author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Photo Credits

Neil Gaiman: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/211547701.html

Cover Page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15783514-the-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere

 

 

It’s an entire world just under your feet, in the vast underground networks that form the urban environment, where people who’ve fallen through the cracks of society vanish from our everyday reality.

Such is the setting of Neil Gaiman’s urban quest fantasy Neverwhere. One of his older novels, it was originally based on a 1996 TV series on BBC Two. It is now a BBC radio series, staring James MacEvoy as Richard Mayhew, Natalie Dormer as Door, and, among others, Christopher Lee as the Earl of Earl’s Court and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington. While I have only read the novel, it is a definite sign of the durability of Gaiman’s story that it has seen so many incarnations in diverse media.

Neverwhere is the journey of an Everyman Scotsman name Richard Mayhew, who finds a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. After this encounter, his normal everyday life is ruined as he loses his job, his girlfriend, and indeed his very identity. No one recognizes him in the London of this world (called London Above), and he must find a way to get his life back.

Door, the girl he finds on the sidewalk, is a resident of London Below, an alternate world that exists in the metro systems, sewers, and underground tunnels beneath London Above. Its a world of hobos, aristocrats, rat-speakers, sadistic killers, monsters, and even angels. As Richard quests to find a way out of London Below, since it is impossible to live wholly in both worlds at the same time, he becomes involved in a quest to find who is responsible for the murder of Door’s family.

Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar
Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar

The villains of Nerewhere are just as memorable as the heroes, if not more so. Mr. Croup is a wordy, fox-like assassin who tears his victims apart with his fingernails and wears a raggedy old suit. Mr. Vandemar is a wolfish sadist who picks his fingernails with a machete and doesn’t like telephones. They are like a darker, but still funny version of your typical Disney villain trio–Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with switchblades. There are other villains in the story, but they are surprises.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Neverwhere, especially after finishing a semester of university. It’s ideal reading on the metro (or the Tube, if you wish), because there can be no better place to read Neverwhere than in the underground world where it’s supposed to take place. I read most of it myself in the Montreal metro.

Which leads me to wonder. Is there a Montreal Below, as there is a Montreal Above? I guess I just assumed there could be. Perhaps there is.

Gaiman appears to have done some research into the London Underground writing his book. He talks about “ghost stations” like the British Library Station, which was walled-in a long time ago and, needless to say, is closed to commuters. There is quite a lot of history in the underground world. I would doubt that there are ghost stations in Montreal Below, but Montreal could still have an interesting subterranean civilization, if we were to imagine one developing.

The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.
The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.

All the shopping malls in the passages under the city, all crisscrossing each other like a labyrinth, might prove ample room to place a alternate world, similar to the feudal-like society Gaiman imagines in Neverwhere. Promenades de la cathédrale, where engineers built a shopping mall under Christ Church Cathedral, could be a key location in Montreal Below. Perhaps Monk, a station on the Green Line, could have a band of monks similar to the Black Friars we see in his book (a pun on Blackfriars Station). What about the dukedom of Vendôme? The barony of Jarry? La seigneurie de Plamondon? Or what about le marquis de Rosemont as the counterpart of the marquis de Carrabas, a swashbuckling character in London Below? And don’t forget the angel residing at Station St. Michel!

Such a world would be an interesting combination of a British-inspired universe with French Canadian characters and settings. Hopefully, the result of such cultural fusion would end in a little more than a Montreal Below that resides exclusively within the potholes that appear on our roads each spring! Gaiman’s underworld is a world of people who have “fallen through the cracks,” after all.

Ah, we Montrealers take every opportunity to complain about our roads!

To avoid this post becoming like an opinion article in The Gazette, let me say a few words to conclude.

Gaiman is a storyteller extraordinaire. His novel reads almost like a bedtime story, except that it’s for adults (teenagers can get away with it). It’s a brilliant combination that reminded me about the nightmares in his Sandman comics. In fact, I almost felt like I was reading a comic book or a graphic novel at a few points, without the pictures or graphics. If you have not read Neverwhere, and you’re a Gaiman fan, then it’s a novel not to be missed. It was a lot of fun. Take it on your next metro ride through the world Below.

 

Photo Credits:

Croup and Vandemar: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/neverwhere/images/819335/title/mr-croup-mr-vandemar-fanart

Montreal Metro: http://www.stm.info/english/metro/a-mapmet.htm

Neil Gaiman: http://www.myspace.com/neilgaiman1

Neverwhere cover: http://jenniferdawnbrody.com/tag/neverwhere/

 

Vision: Evening Prayer

The date was Sunday 6 August 2012. I had entered the chapel of the monastery in Taizé, France, late at night during the service of evening prayer. I had scarcely slept since arriving in Paris and after two days in the City of Lights, I was exhausted.

I was in the state of waking in which, if you close your eyes long enough, you experience flickers of unconsciousness and you become briefly deafened to sound—like dipping your toe into the unfathomable pool of sleep and drawing it out quickly again. While the brothers of the monastery recited the Gospel in several languages, my mind carried the brother’s words off into another kind of narration that echoed the Gospels but attained a more disturbing, Gothic tone and subject matter.

I do not presume to say that the story below is exactly the one my unconscious narrated to me at that moment, but there are some nodal points that unite the two narrations. The haunting persona was there initially, the association with Romeo and Juliet was there, and the misty forest landscape of rural France presented itself powerfully to me at that moment

In putting the disconnected images and feelings together into a linear narration, I have inevitably butchered and sawed my experience into digestible pieces—a necessity, but unfortunate. Nonetheless, you will gain a sense the general feeling that my ‘vision’ produced within me.

Now, time to quit my chattering Romantic persona and get to the prose piece:

 Gothic ruins and graveyard

Vision: Evening Prayer”

Outside the lapses of silence, there is a Kyrie and a hallelujah; outside the sung prayers, a thunderbolt crackles the air outside. Late days and early mornings have driven me to claim what I desire, rest. But I will stand vigil and not lose myself to sleep. My eyes are shut and my head sinks low, almost against my will. Then, a reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew.

I remember the words flowing through the brother’s mouth. To say I do not remember would be a lie. But the words came to me in a state hovering between light and shadows. I would tell the truth. The words changed ownership and I fell away.

***

When Sunday was over, Marie went to the tomb. It was early on the first day of the week, the sun having just risen. It is cold around her legs still, as she runs through the mist and forest. She dashes and skips, cracking twigs underfoot in her urgency.

She is running from something predatorial.

She does not know the origin of this fear. She merely senses something behind her, puffing shallow breath. Suppose she is a milkmaid from a French village a few kilometres from Paris. She has lived a green life, in the fields, approaching the forest warily, living in a stone house with roses near the porch and a beehive growing in the weathered stone wall. She had fallen in love, a deadly vulnerability.

As she flees down the unmarked path, Marie says to herself, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?”

I shall. She has gone to give her respects to one dearly departed, who is not truly dead. She suspects him to be the gardener—there is a garden in the forest glade, near the old tomb—and so ignores him as his back is turned to her. Let the gardener handle himself. Because something is chasing her. The eye in the shadow tracking her is mine.

The gardener casts his gaze in search of her, but the only figure his eye catches, approaching through the mist, is mine.

When Marie reaches the tomb, she sees the stone has already been moved. She sees a young man sitting on it, dressed in a white robe, skin pale as death. “They have taken my Romeo and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Do not be afraid,” I say from atop the stone. “Romeo has risen from his sleep of death. He was never truly dead. He drank a special poison, and now he awaits you. He is standing over his tombstone, triumphant over the grave.”

Marie enters the tomb. She sees Romeo, his feet dangling over a crossed headstone, swaying in the draft.

Her screams fill the tomb as she jumps back and turns to run. She could say nothing else because of her terror and she was very afraid.