A novel to change our nation

Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda chosen as Canada Reads 2014 winner.

As another year of the CBC Canada Reads discussions wrapped up earlier this month with a panel of distinguished guests, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda was selected as this year’s winner. According to the theme of this year’s competition, this is a novel that could change our nation.

The Orenda, set in the wilderness of Canada during the seventeenth century, follows the lives of a Huron warrior named Bird, a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls, and a French Jesuit missionary named Christophe. Each of these three tales become intertwined throughout the course of the novel, as their struggles against the environment, the impending colonizers, and the inner turmoil between tribes reveal some of the darker moments of Canada’s history. Boyden utilizes their narratives to make a poignant commentary of the treatment of indigenous people in our country, and draws a reconciliation of the environment between the past and present in hopes of educating the current and future generations.

Wab Kinew, a former hip-hop artist and acclaimed journalist, was the celebrity advocate for Boyden’s novel among the panelists selected for this year’s debate. Kinew spoke passionately of The Orenda as an invaluable tool to further the discussions on First Nations issues in Canada, where it provides insight to the lives of indigenous people that is not often found in Western media.

Some panelists found the content in The Orenda graphic and explicit, but Kinew, who is from the Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation in Ontario, defended the novel by stating that the violence Boyden presents is integral to our nation’s understanding of the harsh realities faced by the indigenous people. Kinew believes that this novel and its acclaim present an opportunity to educate Canadians on the realities facing natives in Canada, making it a valuable proponent for change in our contemporary society.

The Orenda has received some harsh critiques from First Nations members who oppose the stereotypes the novel presents, rather than celebrate the novel’s success. In his review of the novel for Muskrat Magazine, Anishinaabe scholar Hayden King, who is director of Ryerson University’s indigenous governance centre, argues that the Iroquois are immediately antagonized and given a negative light in comparison to the Huron tribe. Thus, the Iroquois become the “nominal villains” who partake in savage and inhumane methods of torture to the protagonists of the novel, and reinforce some of the dated mythologies surrounding the origins of Canada and aboriginal peoples.

Joseph Boyden’s novel just barely edged out Rawi Hage’s powerful examination of poverty in Cockroach, with a 3-2 vote among the panelists in the final round of debates. Among the other finalists for the CBC Canada Reads 2014 award were Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues.

The call for the CBC Canada Reads competition asks the general public in early October to select up to five Canadian novels that have the power to change the lives and minds of readers. These novels must be written in English by a Canadian author, be published by a traditional publisher, and currently be in print. From these submissions, a long list of the top forty most popular novels is created, where the public votes again to narrow down the choices to a short list of ten novels. From these selections, each member of the celebrity panel must choose a novel to present that they believe is the strongest contribution to literature, and must defend it through a series of debates throughout the week-long competition.

Beside Kinew sat actress Sarah Gadon, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent Samantha Bee, two-time Olympic gold medallist Donovan Bailey, and international activist Stephen Lewis, along with host Jian Ghomeshi from CBC Radio Q. The debates aired live on CBC Radio, CBC TV and online on the CBC Books webpage from March 3 through 6.

Boyden’s The Orenda was published by Random House in 2013, and was also shortlisted for the Governor’s General Award for Literature this past year.

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