I just read Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda. When I’ve finished a book I like to journal about one thing that I want to take away from reading it. That was hard with The Orenda because it gives you so much to think about. I’ve been mulling it over for days now. I keep coming back to two different kinds of scenes in the book.
There are these warm touching scenes where Huron mothers and fathers care for and enjoy their children, where friends share work, play and respect for one another, and where couples feel passion and empathy for their partner. One such scene is Boyden’s description of the reverent ceremony for the dead that happens as the people of a Huron community move their burial ground from their old village to the new one. The love and gentleness with which they treat the physical remains of their deceased family members and share their cherished memories of them are described in intimate detail.
“Each family sees to its dead with such bereavement and care, their tears falling like raindrops …
Yet these same tender people are also capable of horrific acts of violence and revenge. Boyden describes in scenes almost too unbearable to read the way captured enemies are scalped, tortured and mutilated and their hearts torn out and eaten. In the Canada Reads discussions panellist, Stephen Lewis claims that Boyden’s description of torture is almost pornographic.
How can people be so humane, so loving, so respectful and also so vicious, cruel and revengeful? It’s troubling and almost impossible to understand. But it continues to happen.
How could slave owners be doting parents, faithful church members, affectionate spouses and yet abuse the black men and women they owned, treating them as less than human?
How could Nazi soldiers who were loving fathers and husbands and sons take part in the murder of millions of Jewish mothers, wives and children?
What kind of inner struggle must there be for North American military men and women? I’ve seen them in the media weeping tears of joy as they embrace their own children and partners on their return home from the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq. How hard it must be for them to live with the fact that they had the capacity to participate in the killing of people like themselves who were ‘the enemy’ and will never again embrace their own families or return to their own homes. Might this be why more than twenty American military veterans commit suicide every day?
“We hurt one another because we’ve been hurt. . . . We kill one another because we have been killed. We will continue to eat one another until one of us is completely consumed,” says a character in Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda.
That sad commentary on human beings haunts me. I don’t want to believe that such a capacity for revenge and hate exists in all of us, in me. I want to believe that people are good.
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