We’ve had such strange weather lately, and this weekend is no exception. It’s been cool-ish but humid with intermittent rain both yesterday and today, and it looks like it won’t stop until tomorrow, when the temperatures will drop significantly… brrr!! But I’m still able to enjoy my steeped chai tea, as it is incredibly windy so there is a breeze to keep the house fresh. I’m also enjoying freshly baked Date Bread - yum!
I had a Volunteer book club meeting yesterday, and a new member joined us, a kindergarten teacher from one of my schools. This was her first book club meeting ever, and she had some difficulty trudging through the book selection, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. Told from alternating points of view, this novel, set in the seventeenth century in New France, recounts the interactions of some Jesuit missionaries with a tribe of Hurons, the Wendat, as they face many challenges adapting to their changing ways of life. The novel opens with the capture of Father Christophe and a young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, by a band of Wendat led by Bird and his right-hand man, Fox. Christophe’s mission, of course, is to convert as many “sauvages” as possible to Christianity, and he faces many difficulties along the way. Snow Falls, Bird has decided, will become his daughter, since his real daughter was recently killed by the Iroquois, along with his wife, whom he mourns soulfully throughout the book. The Wendat people are a tightly-knit community whose members all work together to keep their village running smoothly. They decide to use Christophe, “the Crow”, to gain bargaining power with Champlain and the colonists as trading partners. The tribes face many challenges over the years, attacks by the Iroquois, plagues that threaten to wipe out their villages, and the struggles to stay unified as members of the Wendat join Christophe’s Christian mission, which eventually expands to include two more French priests. For everyone, the road is long and fraught with difficulties, and it is only when they concede defeat or accept that they may be overpowered that they are able to move beyond their situations and either accept their fate or begin again as a vanquished people. This novel is a fictionalized account of just a chapter in the long, difficult and contentious history between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples of Canada. I can’t explain it any further because it is such a long, overwhelmingly detailed tome that I had a hard time keeping track of specifics. This award-nominated novel is not one I would have chosen to read on my own, but my group was interested in reading more books about Indigenous people, which is how it ended up on the list, and I will freely admit that if it wasn’t a book club selection, I would not have finished it. The challenges I faced were ones other members also experienced: it was difficult to know who was narrating each chapter; the language was dense and the story slow-moving and detailed; and the story was relentlessly harsh. But the writing was also so compelling that it sucked us in, and by the halfway point, we found we could not put it down, yet some of the scenes were so horrific we had to put it down. We all thought that the book was a realistic portrayal of the cultures at that time, both native and non-native. We were disgusted at the ways the Jesuits manipulated the natives, such as by using the clock as a stand-in for the Voice (of God). We were fascinated by the rituals and ceremonies described in the novel, particularly the ceremony of mourning, when all the bones of the deceased were recovered and moved to the new village location, and the Death Song, which tribal members sang as they faced their imminent demise - we wondered if they did this to help them focus and give them something to think about to distract them from the pain of their torture. And torture… oh, the torture! That made up a significant portion of the book, describing torture, torturing captives, facing torture. We discussed how this torture involved everyone, of all ages, which somehow normalized it. We thought it was interesting that they referred to the act of torturing someone as “caressing”. In the whole 485 pages, I had just one sticky note, and it marked a section about torture: Christophe says, “I think we don’t just allow torturers but condone them as a way to excise the fear we all have of death. To torture someone is to take control of death, to be master of it, even for a short time” (p 256). (One member’s brother referred to this book as “The Horrenda”, which is apt!). We wondered whether warring was just part of the human condition, and discussed the perseverance, persistence and will to survive demonstrated by just about all the characters in the book. One member summed up what I believe we were all feeling after reading this: it wasn’t a book that made you proud to be non-Native, but it also didn’t make you want to be Native. I’m so glad I read this historical novel by Canadian author Boyden, who may or may not have Indigenous roots. I was sad and horrified and moved and enlightened all at the same time. (I promised my teacher friend that the books aren’t all this difficult!!)
So as a respite from the “Lee Valley-est” book I’ve probably ever read, I read one of the most “Canadian Tire-est”, A Stranger in the House , also by a Canadian author, Shari Lapena. I read her first novel last year, The Couple Next Door, which featured an unreliable narrator and a situation where all is not what it seems. This novel, too, features an unreliable narrator and all is definitely not what it seems. The story begins with a woman racing out of a parking lot and careening into a lightpost at top speed. This parking lot is in a questionable neighbourhood, and the woman is a suburban housewife, so what was she doing there in the first place, and what was she racing to get away from? Her husband Tom refuses to believe that she did anything unsavoury, but his wife Karen is suffering amnesia and can’t remember anything about the accident or the time just before. There is also the nosy neighbour across the street, Brigid, but did she see anything incriminating and if so, will she tell? Then a dead body turns up at the abandoned restaurant near the parking lot, and suddenly things are looking alot more complicated for Karen. As Tom and the detective on the case, Detective Rasbach, race to uncover details that might shed light on the murder, Karen’s life begins to unravel and secrets are unearthed faster than you can say “arrest her”! This thriller, like her first book, promises much more than it delivers. In my opinion, the writing and dialogue are stilted, the text repetitive and tedious, and the storyline pretty farfetched. I guess if you liked Gone Girl, you would like these wildly popular books, but for me, they lack depth of character and real plot development. But contrary to The Orenda, when it would take me nearly an hour to read 30 pages, this is a book that you could skim-read in an afternoon. So if you are in the mood for a quick read, a thrilling page-turner, this might be the book for you.
That’s all for today. Stay dry and keep reading!
Bye for now…