Reading a book consumes you. Even when you aren’t reading, you are thinking about the book and predicting, analyzing, or wondering about the book. This week I tried to multitask–watch the Habs vs. Rangers game and follow the Walrus Talks Water on Twitter–all while having The Orenda by Jospeh Boyden on my brain. I think I did pretty well.
While following Walrus Talks on Twitter, I kept realizing how important water is (duh!) and that it wasn’t always taken for granted in Canada. I realized that for hundreds or thousands of years water was essential to a way of life, especially fresh water sources that we now use without thought. One of the presenters at the Walrus Talks Water said, “Water shapes you, shapes our culture as Canadians. To do damage to it is to do damage to ourselves.”(Mark Mattson as quoted at Walrus Talks Water on Twitter The Walrus: @walrusmagazine).
In the novel The Orenda, water (rain) is what saves the lives of the Crows (the Jesuit Priests in the Huron community). During a drought, the Priests hold nine days of masses and on the ninth, the clouds roll in, meaning that the community celebrates the fresh water for the crops instead of blaming the Crows for the drought. Also, in the novel, the Huron people rely on the lakes and rivers to travel, trade, and raid. The reverence they had for Lake Huron is evident throughout the novel. Bird, one of the narrators, should be a man who lives up to his name, yet in the novel he states, “Me, I hate heights. I’m a man of the earth and of the water” (pg 350).
One idea from Chris Wood that I thought was interesting during the Walrus Talks Water and that fit with what was happening in The Orenda was the idea that Canada should commodify water. The relationship between different First Nations and with the Europeans was all based on trade. 100 beaver robes for a copper cooking pot. Even shining wood (guns). If Canada’s contemporary history is based on the tradition of placing value on natural resources like oil and lumber, why not do the same for water? For his talk, Wood aptly named his talk “Speaking the C-Word.” If we can commodify oil, beeswax, and lumber (resources that are technically not essential to life), then why can’t we commodify the resource we need the most? Something that was shocking to me was to find out that “Every law passed since Earth Day in 1970 has weakened our ability to protect our waters” (Mark Mattson as quoted at Walrus Talks Water on Twitter The Walrus: (@walrusmagazine).
A lot of The Orenda dealt with change. Change in communities, change in families, and change as a nation. Finding allies, making deals, and negotiating trades make up a large part of The Orenda as Boyden writes about the Wendat people who live on the Georgian Bay. They are no longer alone with just their known enemies anymore. In the book, the French establish permanent settlements and the way of life for all of the First Nations changed forever. After meeting with Champlain, Bird says out loud in the darkness, “‘The world tonight has changed,’ [Bird] says. ‘The world tonight, it has changed forever.'” (pg 129). Even though they know change has come, they cannot fully understand or see what it will look like. Perhaps the same is true today. Perhaps we do need to spend more time as Canadians thinking about our water and how to protect it and make sure that it is able to sustain many generations from now.
There are many things that I know I will take away from having read The Orenda. I’m not sure I’m able to verbalize or put those ideas into coherent thought just yet. I do believe that this book is powerful and I do believe that it does deserve the title of Canada Reads’ Finalist of 2014. This is an important book for Canadians to read in order to understand where we came from as a nation and why that knowledge is so important for how we move forward and make decisions as a nation. Pipelines, fracking, water, education. Boyden brings us back to a more balanced approach for how to be Canadian.
While defending The Orenda during Canada Reads on the CBC, Wab Kinew said, “This [book] is for the people,” Kinew said. “It’s not just lessons on being a good Indian, but lessons on how to be a good human being in here” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/canada-reads-crowns-joseph-boyden-s-the-orenda-2014-winner-1.2562292).
I think that is what I will take away from The Orenda for now: a reminder about how to be a good human being, with others and with resources.
“Out of him will flow rivers of running water” (John 7:38).
“But hindsight is sometimes too easy, isn’t it? . . . What happened in the the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason the future is always just a breath away” (Boyden, 487).