I guess it's fitting I finished this book on the day it was selected as the winner of the CBC Canada Reads competition - and having read all but one of the other nominees, I am extremely supportive of this selection. The book is absolutely fabulous. Which is not to say it was easy to read - in fact, it was so violent at times I had to put it down just to take a break. Unlike in movies, violence in books usually doesn't trouble me, but Boyden's descriptions are so powerful it's as if you're seeing the action on a screen.
The novel deals with the tensions between the Huron and the Iroquois prior to the formation of Canada - and the troubles that escalated when the French Jesuits, and their guns and diseases, were thrown into the mix. Bird is a Huron warrior who has lost his wife and children to an Iroquois attack. To exact revenge he kills the family of the young Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, and adopts her as his own. Her integration into the Tribe, and into Bird's life, is not easy, but by the end of the book the two characters genuinely love each other. The story is written from both the perspective of Bird and Snow Falls. While both are flawed, they are also incredibly strong and loving, especially in that they manage to overcome tremendous suffering.
The other narrator is the Jesuit Priest, Christophe, who the Huron refer to as the Crow (as they do other priests). He is unrelenting in his efforts to convert the "sauvages" to Christianity and the novel clearly illustrates all of the devastation that was wreaked upon the First Nations with the arrival of the Europeans. They introduce smallpox, TB and influenza, not to mention alcohol and guns, which nearly wipe out some of the Tribes. In addition their views on child discipline are clearly the precursor to the residential schools - Christophe cannot understand how the Huron never discipline their children using corporal punishment or otherwise. He has few successes in his conversions, but in the end works with the Huron to defend an Iroquois attack.
This book is a must read to understand the history of the formation of Canada. Boyden's descriptive powers are unparalleled in my view, and while at times this can be uncomfortable, it's worth the discomfort to follow the fate of his fascinating characters.