Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Literary Luncheon with author Joseph Boyden

"Good things happen from good things," Joseph Boyden said during the luncheon that brought one hundred people together on a Sunday morning in Ottawa. The main attraction? Prominent and popular author Joseph Boyden, there to discuss his new book, The Orenda .  Besides serving as an enjoyable get-together, complete with a copy of Boyden’s book for each participant, this event was also a fund raiser for the Writers Festival School Literacy Program. “The impact of this program has been phenomenal,” explained Sean Wilson, Artistic Director of the Writers Festival. The luncheon raised enough money for the program to enable 500 more students to experience an encounter with a "life" author, to have a hands-on session with one of Canada's best writers.


Our separate room in the Metropolitain Brasserie was packed and the buzz of the conversations suggested that everybody had a great time chatting with each other and with the author, who tried to meet as many people as possible. During the main course, all eyes focused on Boyden and Wilson as they embarked on a lively discussion that later expanded into a Q&A session. We could have stayed much longer, but there was a book signing and another event scheduled for the afternoon. Even then, Boyden took time to chat while signing his book and was a willing subject for the many photos taken by fans.


Photo credit: Friederike Knabe


Boyden's new book, The Orenda, was the subject matter of the majority of questions and comments. The conversation revealed the author’s personal insights into the writing and the background for the new novel: it was his conviction that this was a book he had to write. For those who had heard him before, or had already read The Orenda, his answers provided more depth and context and increased our appreciation for his writing and his choice of themes.


It would be nearly impossible to report on the wealth of reflections that were shared in this discussion. For me, there are several memorable aspects of Joseph Boyden's message regarding The Orenda and its importance as a novel on our pre-Canada history, as follows.


History matters. Yet the past doesn't mean much to our life today unless it is connected to the present in a meaningful way. For example, Boyden sees an important link between the past as captured in The Orenda and the Idle No More movement today.  As a child Boyden learned to view history as boring. Many young people feel that today. Our interest in history only changes when we can bring immediacy to the past and make relevant connections. Boyden admitted that he is fascinated by the past and how it links to the present and the future. For example, the last line in The Orenda makes that vision very clear: it brings the past, the present, and the future together.  Or in the words of one reviewer, "The Orenda is much more than a timely novel. It is a timeless one; born a classic."


In response to a question on whether the novel contains a political message, Boyden answered that his preoccupation is first and foremost to tell a good story. To him, good story telling brings a message to life. Characters and narrative work closely together. For example, in this novel he introduced three diverse individuals: Bird, a respected Huron (Wendat) warrior chief; Christophe, a Jesuit priest (locally referred to as Crow); and a young Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) girl, Snow Falls, who was captured and adopted by Bird after a raid that brutally killed many of her people including her parents. Why did he choose three characters? He was fascinated by triangular relationships. Also, it was appropriate to do so in the novel, as each represent their specific culture. There is no black and white, there are no bad guys. Crow is not simplistic; he learns slowly and he appreciates the different world visions and spiritual belief systems. That being said, he is also unaware of many things—for example, the fact that it was he who brought disease to the indigenous population.


Joseph Boyden felt very strongly that he wanted to demonstrate that before the Canada of 1867, complex societies had lived on the land for a very long time. He says, “In the sixteen hundreds these were as populous as European societies."  Before first contact with non-indigenous peoples, there was a balance between the different indigenous societies. The Huron and the Iroquois were agricultural with sophisticated social structures. The appearance of the Europeans threw off the traditional balance in many ways.


Many in the audience were curious about the girl, Snow Falls. How did she come into the story? Well, he said, "She walked out of the mist into the story and talked to me.”  He admitted, smiling, that characters do things he does not always expect, especially in the case of Snow Falls. She often did things that Boyden wasn't planning to write, but she insisted and he could only argue with her and try to find a solution that would help him write her out of trouble.  In general, though, with seven older sisters, the author said he has no problems getting into the mind of a girl; instead, he found writing the male characters much more challenging.


In closing, the author said much research went into The Orenda, but in the end, the dialogue is more important to him than where the research takes him. Above all, Boyden’s first priority is to tell a good story. And when reading this new novel, it is easy to see that he accomplishes that goal.