The book is set in the days of early French settlers in the St. Lawrence Seaway. There are three main characters – Christophe, a French Jesuit priest sent to save the savages, Snow Falls, an Iroquois girl who has been captured, and Bird, a leader in his Huron tribe.
When the book opens Bird has just led a successful raid on the Iroquois, killing Snow Falls’ family and also captured Christophe.
What I loved about this book was that I was immediately completely disoriented. The narrative shifts back and forth between the three main characters and the culture clash is immediately obvious. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that the character Crow was Christophe (the reference to his back robes). Christophe thinks that Snow Falls is evil and trying to seduce him by taking off all her clothes and lying on the ground. In fact, she is trying to commit suicide.
The book follows the Huron as they deal with their enemy, the Iroquois, drought, blight, and the diseases brought from the French.
I will not deny that the book is brutally and graphically violent. I had to skim some parts as my stomach (and heart) just couldn’t take it.
Joseph Boyden is a brilliant writer and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. You felt like you were living in the village and the early disorientation of the whole new world (yet within an area that I know well) quickly disappeared as Boyden teaches the culture (without ever appearing to do so). The writing is masterful.
I highly recommend this book. This is not just a Native Canadian novel. This is not just a Canadian novel. This is a great novel.