Violent tribal warfare and disagreements about dogma abound in a historical epic set in 17th-century Canada.
This sprawling novel by the Giller-winning Boyden (Three Day Road, 2005, etc.) alternates among three narrators. Bird is a Huron leader who strives to fend off attacks from enemy Iroquois while establishing a trading relationship with French settlers; Snow Falls is a young Iroquois woman captured by the Huron and claimed as a daughter by Bird; and Christophe is a young French Catholic priest, also captured by the Huron but determined to convert his keepers to Christianity. Boyden doesn’t explicitly signal who’s speaking in each chapter, but who’s who is quickly clear: Bird is sage but ruthless, Snow Falls, spirited and independent, and Christophe is prayerful yet frightened. And Christophe has good reason to be scared: One of his fellow missionaries has been badly tortured by the Huron, his hands now fingerless stumps, and Boyden includes plenty of harrowing scenes of the dayslong torture the tribes would inflict on each other. (In a cruel irony, the Huron term for it is “caressing.”) Yet the overall tone of the book is contemplative; violent scenes are matched by those about the nature of God in such a violent milieu, particularly in terms of Christophe’s mostly unsuccessful attempts to turn the Huron to the “great voice.” (“Orenda” is the life force the natives believe inhabits everything in nature.) For all the high-action savagery and brutality that Boyden details (even friendly lacrosse matches get bloody), the novel can feel slow and static, particularly when it cycles through each narrator’s perspective on a single incident. But the tighter prose in its climactic chapters gives the novel sharpness and lift.
A well-researched tale that mostly strikes a shrewd balance between thinking and fighting.