This is a difficult book to review and the emotional experience is difficult to express. It is not often that I read a Canadian author or a book centered on Canadian history. As both a Canadian and a Christian, I found the character depictions to be both engaging and uncomfortable. The story carries elements of historical interest, intrigue and shame. The author does a commendable job of depicting elements of our history that we have come to see as shameful but casts the characters in such a light that no one party is disparaged.
The story revolves around the personal and entwined perspectives of three characters. The story and events are told by Bird, a Huron Warrior; Snow Falls, an Iroquois prisoner and adopted daughter and Christophe, a Jesuit missionary. We follow these three on a journey in which these very different people form an unexpected and tenuous community. The experiences and growth of these character are colored by and shaped through the violent and ongoing clash of the Huron and Iroquois people. The story is complex and vast.
The story is unsettling on many levels. This is a novel about First Nations people written by a person with Metis heritage. For my American friends, that would be a person with mixed First Nation and European heritage. The books feels as it is written with a cultural understanding yet paints a picture of the Huron and Iroquois as a savagely violent. This creates some feelings of discomfort for the reader as the First Nation people are seen as savages in one perspective and is occasionally confirmed in other perspectives. What I find fascinating about this is that I am left believing that my feelings are not somehow uninformed. The author paints an often bleak story on a violent background. I came to see that while the society was violent and savage by European standards, the violence was understood to be an unfortunate but almost necessary reality when seen from the other perspectives. I was left feeling that I could incorporate the violence into my understanding of the history without passing judgment on the people.
I found the element of the European “invasion” to be equally interesting. Canadian History is filled with atrocities against native Canadians. When looking back on my Country’s history, I am left to grapple with the Church’s involvement with Canada’s original inhabitants. There is history of abuse by the church. It was refreshing to see a depiction of a Jesuit missionary that wasn’t completely unflattering. There is a depiction of a real struggle between the goals of the French and the goals of the individual missionaries. While at times, the Jesuit is willfully blind to the intentions of his French benefactors, his intentions are generally good, even if they are misguided.
Overall, the strength of the novel is found in the characters. Each of the three major characters are nuanced and developed with care. The perspective that each of them bring to the story is the reason the novel works so well. Without the great characterization, the plot would not stand. Readers who love great characters, a historical context and do not shy from violence will enjoy this novel.