Thought provoking tension

On April 11, 2023 member Mary Liz Q. presented on the works of Canadian author Joseph Boyden. Mary Liz is currently CWLC Treasurer. Prior to retiring, she was a librarian and still loves the library.

Boyden’s novels Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce, Orenda, and Wenjack present the resilience of Indigenous culture in the face of state brutality in Canadian history and today. He uses violent situations to create tension in the reader and that tension ideally provokes the reader to learn more about Indigenous and Canadian history. Pain, brutality and drug use fill his works, alongside beautiful nature imagery that ties characters back to the land.

Mary Liz does not like an easy read – and with these books she didn’t get one. Three Day Road is the story of Indigenous men who enlist and become snipers in The Great War. The book recognizes the significant contribution of Indigenous Canadians in the military, and how they were treated before, during and after the war. Boyden posits that military service allowed Indigenous men to rediscover a warrior’s path. It also offers the hope that traditional culture can help returning veterans heal from a devastating war.

Photo by Cross-Keys Media on Unsplash

Through Black Spruce continues the story of the Indigenous family introduced in Three Day Road. In this book, the city is portrayed as a dangerous place with substance abuse and violence awaiting Indigenous men and women. Themes include the fading of tradition, the abuses of residential schools, and the power of family and friendship.

Orenda take the reader back to the early settlement of Canada, with conflict between the Huron (Wendat) and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) First Nations and with early Catholic missionaries. Mary Liz notes that torture is at the heart of this book and it is not for the faint of heart. The role of violence in each of these cultures and how it is used to shape manhood is explored. The title refers to a certain spirit or energy that the Haudenosaunee  believe is present in all things (to learn more, see wikipedia). This belief is anathema to the missionary. Violence and torture create tension in this book, offset by Boyden’s use of beautiful simile and metaphor.

Wenjack is a fictional retelling of the death of 12 year old boy who escapes residential school, only to die on the railway tracks leading 600 km back to his home. The novel is based on the life of Chanie Wenjack, who died age 12 in 1966 after fleeing residential school. Reporting of Chanie Wenjack’s story also resulted in the late Gordon Downie establishing the charitable organization: the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund.

Despite the challenging themes and graphically violent story-telling, Joseph Boyden is a compelling author. In recognition of this, he was awarded the Order Of Canada in 2015.

There is little doubt that Boyden’s powerful books have brought the attention of a wide readership to Indigenous issues particularly the abuses of forced residential schools and Indigenous heroism in military service. While Boyden is passionate about these issues and his right to tell these stories (, his early claims to Indigenous heritage have been challenged and this controversy has coloured the discussion of these powerful works (for an Indigenous viewpoint :

Next week, member Cecillia K. will present on the works of Andrey Kurkov (Grey Bees, Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev). Members are reminded that donations of children’s books will be accepted after the meeting to be distributed to Ukrainian refugee families.

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