Revision Quest

Joseph Boyden set out to explore his First Nations roots. What he discovered has changed the national conversation

Man in front of trees
Photograph by Saty Namvar and Pratha Samyrajah

Late at night on October 31, 1982, Joseph Boyden stepped to the curb of Steeles Avenue East, a four-lane road in the Toronto suburb of North York. Watching the headlights of a vehicle intensify, he timed his dive perfectly, giving the driver no chance to brake or swerve. He hit the concrete, and a milli­second later the car hit him. The right front tire drove over his back; the rear one would have done the same had his leather jacket not caught in the undercarriage. He was dragged along until the shocked driver ­managed to stop.

Boyden, who turned sixteen that day, had been dumped by his girlfriend a few hours earlier. A former altar boy from a large Catholic family, he attended a rigorous Jesuit high school where, his math and science troubles aside, everyone noticed his intelligence. He was handsome and a good athlete, a captain of the football team and a defenceman for his parish hockey squad.

He was also a punk, with the requisite ear piercings and self-inflicted cigarette burns. For months, he had been travelling downtown to mosh at club shows, swallowing black beauties, the precursors of methamphetamines, to keep the rage going. He was depressed and out of control—scared, he later realized, of the future.

His heart stopped twice in the emergency ward. He suffered major head trauma, a splintered rib cage, collapsed and punctured lungs, a ruptured spleen and a lacerated liver, and massive internal bleeding. On regaining consciousness, he watched his mother, believing her son would not survive, weep uncontrollably. He watched his church priest pray for his soul. It is probable that only his extreme physical fitness (football season had just ended) kept him alive.

Three weeks in intensive care followed, then almost four months of rehab, including court-mandated sessions with a psychiatrist. Eventually, Boyden returned to Brebeuf College School, a few blocks west from where he had stepped off that curb. He showed up for class still out of control, still self-harming and suicidal. He now sported a full mohawk, a cut favoured by followers of Circle Jerks and DOA but named for the upstate New York tribe of the Iroquois confederacy.

The Iroquois nations’ wars against the rival Hurons constitute an epic North American history, one that began long before contact with Europeans, and Brebeuf College had links with that history. Efforts by the French priest St. Jean de Brébeuf to convert the Hurons to Christianity, which ended with his torture and execution in 1649 at the hands of the Iroquois, were foundational to the school’s self-regard. Students like Joseph Boyden could avoid neither the statue of the saint in the front entrance, nor the tale of his stoic martyrdom and how the warriors cut out Brébeuf’s heart and ate it, hoping his bravery might transfer to them.

As messed up as he was, Boyden wore his Native/punk cut with intent. His father was part Nipmuc, his mother part Ojibwa, though at the time the family didn’t talk about it. He never knew whether the Jesuits at Brebeuf College got the double meaning. Operating mostly on instinct—it would be years before he understood this clearly—the teenager was asserting that he was not quite who he seemed to be; and that the full, real, human story of first, and indeed ongoing, contact between First Nations and settler communities was not quite what everyone was telling.

The Orenda has been in my head all my life,” Boyden says about his reimagining of the Huron-Iroquois wars and the fateful Jesuit intervention. “I’ve always been fascinated by the story.” Now forty-seven, the soft-spoken novelist is still movie star handsome, with warm brown eyes and a quick, roguish smile. He is also still football fit: he works out regularly and takes canoe trips and hikes in the bush whenever he can get to Northern Ontario to paddle, hunt, trap, or fish.

It is December, and he is just in from three months, more or less, of touring The Orenda. Home is the quiet Mid-City neighbourhood in New Orleans. He lives with his wife, the writer Amanda Boyden, and their rescued chihuahua, Fritz Friday, in a renovated corner grocery decorated with bohemian good taste, complete with a menu board of outdated prices for po’ boys posted on a wall. Here, the writing couple works and entertains, surrounded by books and art, including an original by Cree artist Kent Monkman, and photographs by Edward Curtis, the great photographer of North American Indians. When I arrive in the early afternoon, Amanda, a former bartender, is rearranging their liquor cabinet in one room. Nearby, a stuffed raven nestles in a wall unit next to a feather and a bear tooth. Amanda calls the collection “things that Joseph likes to show people.”

Boyden’s third novel, and his first since winning the 2008 Giller Prize for Through Black Spruce, arrived at the end of last summer with literary bells ringing. It received coverage for three consecutive weekends in the Globe and Mail’s Books section, and industry insiders predicted a sweep of the fall prizes: the Giller, the Governor General’s, and the Writers’ Trust. Reviews ranged from positive to ecstatic.

Only in this heady context could the book’s performance to date—months atop bestseller lists, a short listing for the GGs, inclusion in CBC’s 2014 Canada Reads competition—be described as mixed. In particular, its exclusion from the Giller short list elicited actual gasps of shock at the media announcement in Toronto. As well, the jury’s decision regarding The Orenda prompted a curious book advertisement. The “Indigo book team” paid for a full page in the Globe to scold the jury and praise the novel. “Unjustly and inexplicably excluded from the Giller Prize shortlist,” read the ad, “we feel that The Orenda is the best Canadian novel published in 2013.”

It certainly was among the year’s highest-profile releases, appearing at a moment when its author is becoming as prominent, in a sense, as his work. In 2013, Canada undertook a public conversation about First Nations. Idle No More, the ongoing sovereignty movement for treaty rights and protection of land and water, made headlines for months, and Boyden has emerged as more than just a passionate advocate for its concerns; he could be, in the view of many observers, an important bridge between different Canadas that need to better connect.

“The books come first,” he says. “But if people want to hear what I have to say, it’s my responsibility and duty to talk about issues that need to be discussed.” In public, he is charming and charismatic, and his empathy and his ability to connect can draw huge crowds. He is also disarmingly open, with a growing list of influential admirers and friends—“an astoundingly generous person,” according to one such friend, Margaret Atwood.

“I’m amazed that Canadians are so complacent at a time in our history when we need to make huge decisions,” he says with typical frankness. “Nobody wants to make them. Well, Idle No More does.” He is as outspoken about the environment, most notably the oil sands (“Tar sands,” he insists, “because that’s what it is: tar”), government muzzling of scientists, and the media’s culpability in distorting complex First Nations issues.

Until just a few years ago, what happened to Boyden that night in 1982—as he now understands, part of an ongoing battle with depression—was only known to his family, his doctor, and Amanda. Nevertheless, with so many Aboriginal friends losing their children to suicide, he felt he had to go public. “Walk to Morning,” his account of the attempt, aired on CBC Radio in 2011, and he has since made time to speak to youth groups.

“I tell this story very frightfully,” he says of the talks. “Once you’re gone, you’re gone, and it’s devastating to those around you.” Last spring, he helped to design and build a lodge with his Cree friend William Tozer, where Native youths can learn to hunt, trap, and fish, and perhaps regain their lost sense of identity and self-esteem. The lodge is located at mile 131 of the Polar Bear Express, the train between Cochrane and Moosonee, Ontario.

Most of Boyden’s writerly and activist concerns are oriented toward Canada. Even with direct flights between Toronto and New Orleans, living in the Big Easy compounds his itinerary. That puts him on a lot of planes; during a single Vancouver–Toronto trip, he wrote the opening twenty pages of The Orenda, a harrowing scene involving a massacre and a kidnapping. As it happens, he is back in Mid-City for just a few days, before he turns around again, for a talk in Vancouver and family Christmas plans in Northern Ontario, then back to Toronto in January to attend a Neil Young benefit concert with Jim Balsillie, co-founder of BlackBerry.

His schedule will only get busier. Further ahead lies the US publication of The Orenda in the spring, with translations into various languages to follow. Boyden teaches an online course with the University of British Columbia, which had kept him busy that morning. He has a young adult novel under contract; screenplay adaptations of his novels and an original TV series, both in ongoing development; and a commission for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. There is also the third book in the trilogy that began with Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, along with a companion to The Orenda, yet to be written.

“I’m at a time in my life where I’m really creative,” Boyden says simply. The five novels will complete his “cosmology of the Bird family,” he explains of the First Nations clan whose ancestral lines runs through the books. He once thought he might have this impressive body of work finished by age fifty. Now he thinks early fifties seems more realistic.

Seated by the raven in the front room, he circles back to an older concern, revived while touring The Orenda: defending his qualifications to write from the First Nations perspective at all. He is dressed, as usual, in jeans and a T-shirt, revealing arms adorned with tattoos. Prominent on each forearm are feathers or quills, inked just a few years ago, with an Ojibwa manitou on one bicep and Irish hounds on the other. Along the lifeline of his left hand is the name Jacob, his son from an earlier relationship. (Jacob is now twenty-three.) The burn scars, still visible, and the tire track across his back mark that difficult youth, and the devastation he almost caused those around him.

Criticisms, often levelled sotto voce, have been floating in the literary ether ever since the non-Native-looking writer from suburban Toronto appeared on the national scene in 2005 with Three Day Road, a novel told from the shared perspective of a Oji-Cree sharpshooter and an elderly medicine woman. “It’s never First Nations people who say I’m not Indian enough,” Boyden says, a trace of irritation beneath his usual genial tone. “Never a woman either. Always some white guy. It’s made me defensive these past few months.” By his own estimate, he is a mix of Irish, Scottish, and Native, and he has never pretended otherwise. He is as interested in his father’s experiences as a combat physician in World War II, or his mother’s Scottish father, a motorcycle courier in World War I, as he is in those First Nations connections. “We’re mutts,” he likes to say of his family. “I know who I am and where my heart is.”

In Willowdale, the Boydens were a family apart, though not for any reason most of us could have recognized back in ’70s Toronto. I attended the same church as they did, and had the same Jesuit instruction. His older sister Mary was my classmate in elementary school, and the family had a high profile at Blessed Trinity church on Bayview Avenue, just north of Finch. Size mattered in Catholic congregations of the era, and the Boydens—the older, distinguished doctor Raymond Boyden and his beautiful, raven-haired wife, Blanche, with their eight children attired in matching outfits—took up an entire pew. I don’t remember Joseph, although he likely assisted the priest who served me communion on Sundays, but I do recall the Boydens’ large blue house, and how the devout clan piled into their station wagon every morning to attend Mass.

The other parish members of similar stature, the McCanns, had eleven children. Joseph was in the same grade as Margaret McCann and delivered their daily paper. One morning in May 1978, a terrible fire killed five of the children, including Margaret, along with their mother, who ran back into the burning house, trying to save the others. Joseph was devastated. The McCann fire was “one of the many traumatic moments in my early life that screwed me up,” he says.

But the greater trauma was the death of his father three years earlier. Eight-year-old Joseph awoke on the morning of February 13, 1975, to learn that Raymond had died during the night. “He’s gone to heaven,” his mother told him. A family doctor with a practice in downtown Yorkville, Raymond had served throughout World War II and was the most highly decorated medical officer in the British Empire.

Almost forty years later, his father is seldom far from his mind. “He’s still around, you know what I mean? ” Boyden says as he shows me a copy of Raymond’s Distinguished Service Order, awarded for exceptional service by an officer, and a framed photograph of him as a member of Dalhousie University’s hockey team. Joseph adored his father, and he remembers their too-brief family life together: having his split head sewn up on the dining room table, and lining up with his siblings every night, like the von Trapps, to kiss their military-minded patriarch. “We grew up in a strange, wonderful way,” he recalls.

Raymond had been married before, fathering three daughters, one of whom, Angela, had lived on Beckwith Island in southeastern Georgian Bay. Even to camp on the island, permission was needed from the Ojibwa Beausoleil First Nation Council, yet the Boydens spent summers on Beckwith. The family also owned an uncle’s war bonnet, and whenever kids in their suburban Toronto neighbourhood played cowboys and Indians a Boyden usually wanted the Indian part.

“We knew there was something,” he says, “but we didn’t talk about it.” Only during his teenage years did the conversation begin. “It’s a small part of who I am in terms of blood,” he says of his First Nations heritage. “But it’s a huge part of my life and my family.”

His mother never remarried. She now lives on a lake near Parry Sound, Ontario, and when her son visits they attend Mass together. Three years ago, Joseph and Mary took their eighty-year-old parent to her first powwow and sweat lodge ceremony.

Mary remembers how they kept their Native identity private. The years following their father’s death were “painful for everyone,” she says, including her fair-haired kid brother, who was doted on by his five older sisters. Joseph was bright and sensitive, and in her view struggled with who he was. “We were not allowed to be true to ourselves,” Mary tells me from Timmins, Ontario, where she has spent much of her adult life. “It tears you apart.” To this day, she grants, some of their siblings feel uncomfortable discussing these issues. “We were fortunate,” she emphasizes. “We were privileged, but there was always a sense of loss.”

After five years at York University, where he wrote so-so poetry and song lyrics, Boyden kicked around Toronto, working odd jobs and fathering Jacob. In 1992, he sent some writing samples to the master of fine arts program at the University of New Orleans, in a city he had visited many times. On being accepted, he rode down through the States on a Yamaha Virago motorcycle.

He returned to Toronto a few years later, in the company of his new wife, to start a job his sister had told him about. Mary was then employed at Northern College in Timmins, and had alerted him to a position as a communications teacher, based in Moosonee. He had no experience of the North, and he was unaccustomed to the harshness of both the climate and life in James Bay. The job would also include travel, by air or freighter canoe, to teach in Moose Factory, Attawapiskat, and Fort Albany.

Leaving Amanda in an apartment off Queen Street West, he made the first of many long drives up through North Bay, Temagami, and Cochrane, catching the Polar Bear Express to “the gateway to the Arctic.” The two years he spent in Moosonee, though hard in general and on his marriage in particular, were transformative. He discovered how badly he wanted to write. He discovered, slowly, what he wanted—needed—to write about.

“Seeing these poverty-stricken, tough places, so full of love and pride,” he remembers, “and encountering the most amazing, resilient, funny people” put him in direct touch with his First Nations side. He also saw up close “how First Nations people are treated in Canada.” Born with a Tooth, his debut story collection, was still a few years off, but the cast of characters was settling into his imagination.

The artistic leap from the lively but slight tales in Born with a Tooth, published in 2001, to the sweeping, polyphonic Three Day Road, released four years later, is one that some writers never make. In 2003, Nicole Winstanley, a young agent with Westwood Creative Artists in Toronto, surprised herself by answering a cold call. Even more surprising, she agreed to read the caller’s novel. When he appeared at the agency’s offices a month later, she abandoned industry protocol by having coffee with an unknown writer who had one collection in print and a “giant manuscript” about two Native snipers in World War I under his arm. “We had this amazing conversation about Three Day Road and the place of Canadian books in the world,” Winstanley recalls. Boyden’s warmth and passion struck her. So did his way with words, and with people. “You can lose a full day having a short conversation with Joseph,” she says.

Though he later called her again from France, where he was researching the battlefields, and begged her not to read his giant manuscript until he could revise it, they eventually went to work readying Three Day Road for submission. Bidding wars with publishers and competing movie options ensued. Winstanley soon became a senior fiction editor at Penguin Canada, which had bought Three Day Road in a two-book deal. Now the company’s publisher and president, she has thought long and hard about her star author’s ability to connect with readers on the page, and in life. Boyden’s voice, she believes, is unique for being at once “sensitive and bold.” Joseph himself, she says, speaking as his friend, is “an incredibly sensitive soul.” He suffered another bout of depression after leaving Moosonee.

In 1998, with his literary ambitions finally taking shape, he might have been expected to settle in Toronto, close to family, closer to Georgian Bay and Northern Ontario. But when he reunited with Amanda, they talked about where they felt most at home: New Orleans, where they met and have lived ever since.

On the Boydens’ kitchen table in Mid-City sit two laptops, positioned across from each other. After he tours me through the house, which has a guest suite and a workout room, I ask about his office. He doesn’t have one. They do some writing in cafés, including the nearby Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, where chunks of The Orenda came into being. Otherwise, he and Amanda work at the table every day, as they have done for almost two decades. They read aloud from their fiction in progress, and spare no feelings. She trashed an early chunk of Through Black Spruce, saying it just wasn’t good enough. “And she was right,” he says.

Some of this easy exchange comes from being graduates of writing programs and now teachers in them, but they are a natural couple, with numerous shared experiences and affinities. At forty-nine, Amanda is a striking woman with shorn hair and pale blue eyes, the posture of a dancer and the poise of an athlete. A Minnesota native who retains a soft Midwestern accent, she was raised in Chicago and St. Louis, and had her own wild youth in California, also involving the punk music scene. (She wore a reverse mohawk, her head shaved up the middle of her skull.) While living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a young adult, she was raped, strangled, and left for dead—a trauma she volunteers to me in conversation.

She matched her early love of writing stories with an ardour for the dangerous art of trapeze. Over the years, she did stunt work in films, ran an all-female school called Aerial Inc., and soared above New Orleans in a trapeze show. She no longer performs, a relief to her husband; while he has spotted her many times, his fear for her safety remains primal.

They met on the first day of class in the fall of 1992. “Joseph was a player,” Amanda announces while we tour New Orleans in their SUV. “Amanda was a bit of a player, too,” he counters. Though she felt instantly attracted to him, she rebuffed his overtures for a year. “He was a crappy writer, and he wasn’t very dedicated yet,” she says by way of explanation. At the time, Boyden was racing around town on his motorcycle and living in a shack on a batture by the Mississippi. The place had no air conditioning or heat, and water shot up through the floorboards whenever a ship passed by.

“It was Tom Sawyer, totally,” he says, standing outside the larger, nicer house that replaced it. “We had the best parties.” Amanda moved in with him in 1993, and they got married in 1995 beneath a moss-cloaked 200-year-old oak, known locally as the Tree of Life. Hurricane Opal almost scuttled the wedding, but the weather held. A Jesuit priest and an Ojibwa elder co-presided over the ceremony.

The couple banters while sharing pizzas and salad at a restaurant in their old neighbourhood of Uptown, where they escaped Hurricane Katrina flooding by a few blocks. “Amanda’s an adrenalin junkie,” he maintains, chiding her for pressuring him to bungee jump with her in South Africa, where they visited his sister Suzanne. She replies, “I’ll jump out of a plane or fly trapeze, but I won’t do something foolish, like cage-dive with sharks.” In her estimation, however, cage diving with sharks, which Joseph also did in South Africa, does not rank as her husband’s biggest folly. That would be running with the bulls in Pamplona, twice, once with the novelist Michael Winter.

“We were drunk on calimocho,” Joseph explains, citing the tradition of drinking the red wine and cola cocktail all night, then scampering bleary eyed through the streets to the stadium, with the bulls ideally far behind. He and Winter held hands for the entire ten-minute dash, while Amanda returned to the hotel, refusing to watch them be stomped on, or gored. The second year, she did watch. “It was horrific,” she says. “Dumb male behaviour,” he admits. He plans to run with the bulls one more time, when he is sixty or perhaps seventy.

The banter turns more serious as Amanda describes her two high-altitude airplane jumps. Though she made them in different states and years, both involved close brushes with death when her primary and secondary chutes malfunctioned. Joseph goes quiet as she tells these tales (he is terrified of heights). Amanda allows that he only agreed to bungee jump off Bloukrans Bridge on the off chance that “he could protect me somehow.” As it happened, he had to go first—making, it turned out, one of the longest bungee jumps on the planet. His thoughts on plunging more than 160 metres: “I’m going to die.” Amanda’s: “How beautiful it is to be a bird.”

Themes of friendship, risk taking, and their commitment to busy, productive careers inform the conversation. So does violence—in their work, their city, and their own biographies. Amanda’s second novel, 2008’s Babylon Rolling, a portrait of their Uptown neighbourhood the year before Katrina, is infused with a clear-eyed affection for the notoriously fun-loving city, which is, Joseph concedes, “a very easy place to live easily.” It is also notoriously violent. The couple witnessed a murder in the street, which he wrote about in this magazine; and the modest bar where we drink and play air hockey now has a doorman, after two attacks in the past several years, a shooting and a fatal stabbing. Their home lies near the Bayou St. John, where the occasional crocodile lurks, along with the occupants of a crack house.

“I don’t live in America,” Boyden says one night at the bar. “I live in the banana republic of New Orleans.” Three city friends have joined us, and he refuses all of our money: “I have a tab here,” he says. Mike Pitre, an ex-Marine about to publish his first novel, is a Cajun from Lafourche Parish, but his teacher wife, Erin, hails from Chicago. Writer and librarian Dave Parker, a former student of Boyden’s who once flew to Northern Ontario to hunt moose with him, is a Virginia native. All of them love the city, in no small part for its exceptional character and edgy charms. On another night, the Boydens take me to their favourite restaurant, Cochon, to meet more friends and sample fried alligator and boudin with pickled peppers. Out front, a young college professor observes in private that while Boyden is an important writer in Canada, he is also a valued friend to many locals. I assure him that I have not come down to repatriate Joseph Boyden.

Living away from Canada has its advantages. “The physical, geographic, psychic distance is necessary,” he says of his voluntary exile. Nicole Winstanley sees New Orleans as the place her writer retreats to, once he has exhausted the huge reserves of energy necessary to just be the public Joseph Boyden. “He has always known what he wants to do,” she says, “and it’s easier for him to do it from there.”

Back in 2009, early days for The Orenda, Boyden realized that he needed help imagining the world of seventeenth-century Aboriginal Canada. He also required permission, in effect, to explore the hearts and minds of the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) and Huron (or Wyandot) nations. From the outset of his career, he has sought the advice of elders when dealing with culturally sensitive material. For the new project, he contacted Georges Sioui, the Huron-Wyandot historian at the University of Ottawa. Sioui already had a graduate student working on Three Day Road, and he was happy to meet Boyden. “Joseph is very dutiful with people who are reputed to know things,” he jokes. He found Boyden “very attentive, very respectful,” and wound up committing several months to the manuscript.

Sioui did not come away without criticisms of the original draft. “Joseph was a victim of the received view of the Iroquois; he made them look vicious.” Iroquois themselves, Sioui admits, have internalized these myths, believing they once “killed everything that moved,” but he was anxious for the author to learn more about the purposes of torture and violence within the culture. “I was looking at the book as something very important,” he says.

He suspected that Boyden was in for a hard time with certain critics and readers for his determination to rewrite history and include those who had been deliberately left out. “A lot of people won’t be ready to give over the Aboriginal perspective,” Sioui says. He believes The Orenda represents a turning point in North American literature, and that Boyden’s “respect for his subject, his seriousness, his honesty” position him to “carry on writing books that will ring loudly.”

Others share Sioui’s high hopes for the novel, and for Joseph Boyden. John Ralston Saul, who commissioned him to write about Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont for Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, calls The Orenda “an important statement about how to imagine being Aboriginal. It is not about being a victim—even if you have been victimized.” Saul, whose 2008 book A Fair Country is exerting its own influence on the national conversation, sees Boyden’s project in a larger context.

“There is a long history of writers being, in some way, leaders in society,” Saul says. “Not that they necessarily write political books. It’s more that a great writer has a compelling belief system.” He toured the country with Boyden to promote the series, and noted his authority and gravitational pull within the First Nations community. “Aboriginal kids see him as a role model,” he adds.

Margaret Atwood directs me to the chapter on First Peoples in Survival, her influential study of Canadian literature. The book, published in 1972, envisioned a time when First Nations Canadians would not be “made into projections of something in the white Canadian psyche, a fear or a wish.” Instead, they would be “considered in and for themselves.” Citing Alberta novelist Rudy Wiebe as an underappreciated interim figure, she says she predicted that “Joseph Boydens would arise” to tell those stories fairly and fully. Atwood sat on the Giller jury that chose not to short-list The Orenda, a decision she prefers not to discuss.

The novel may be Boyden’s best for the same reason that it is easy to overlook: because it is detached from contemporary concerns. The Orenda evokes Idle No More only in the sense of demanding a retake on history, both the facts and the perspective. Its power lies in the universality of its drama, and its unblinking depiction of individuals and cultures in conflict amid a harsh, if beautiful, environment. The Wyandot leader Bird, the Haudenosaunee girl Snow Falls, and the lanky Crow—that is, Christophe, the Jesuit missionary modelled on St. Jean de Brébeuf—embody the orenda, the Iroquois life force that animates all objects. On the page, at least, it makes for a compelling belief system, a vision that is equal parts tender and tough minded, where violence cannot be disentangled from human nature.

In the final moments of his martyrdom, the Crow is presented with his own heart, extracted from his chest with a knife by an admiring torturer. “He bites into it,” the Jesuit reports of the warrior’s attempt to partake of his courage, “and I can see myself again, a small boy reaching for a branch, grasping and then biting into the stolen fruit.” Such an insight, at once ferocious and touching, is not for the squeamish. Nor will its moral dispassion, a sign of great art, necessarily please those who prefer their history uncomplicated.

Off the page, however, Boyden willingly sheds that dispassion. “Basil Johnston gave me an Anishinabe name in ceremony,” he says, referring to the revered Anishinabe writer, storyteller, and scholar. “‘Waase Aazhgan: he who must enlighten.’ When Basil Johnston says that, you have to listen.” While he is careful to define the role (“I don’t want to be mistaken as a representative of a people”), he embraces it without hesitation. “The job I’ve been given is to serve as a bridge between communities that often misunderstand each other,” he says.

That job will almost certainly galvanize his critics, and perhaps risk blurring his fiction with his activism. “So now Joseph is a target,” says Atwood. “You can’t do everything.” Boyden seems to know this instinctively, withdrawing to New Orleans, and Amanda, and their circle of friends. Despite the challenges, he possesses the ambition—along with the energy and stamina—to pull it all off. His Catholicism, as much as his First Nations heritage, may provide the lasting fuel. The Jesuit world view emphasizes duty and responsibility, a purposeful life, and he uses similar language to articulate his own way of being. However much other people will ask of Joseph Boyden, it will likely be no more than he asks of himself.

This appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Charles Foran
Charles Foran teaches the contemporary Irish novel at the University of Toronto. His new book, Planet Lolita, comes out in May.