This is a story about a clash of cultures, about misunderstandings and incomprehension. It is about French Jesuit missionaries coming into contact with Native Americans along the St. Laurence River in the seventeenth century. The story is set in the early seventeenth century at the same time as the Three Musketeers. Father Laforgue and D’Artagnan are contemporaries. Cardinal Richelieu even makes a fleeting appearance in Black Robe. But these are separate worlds.
A closer comparison would be to “The Last of the Mohicans” set a century later, and in the British colonies to the south. But do not expect the noble savage, as envisioned by Rousseau. Neehatin and Chomina are not Chingachgook and Uncas. They are not even noble villains like Magua, someone you can hate but respect. They are foul-mouthed, and can be quite cynical and vicious.
The world views however are quite different, and this is made very clear in the course of the telling of this story. The Jesuits, obviously, and the French in general have a Christian worldview, a view of salvation gained through the sacrifice of the Cross and the miracle of the Resurrection. They believe in the Sacraments, and especially that in the Eucharist or Communion the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Neehatin, Chomina and the others find this utterly incomprehensible. For them, the world is sentient, filled with what we would call divinity. They believe in the power of dreams, and they use dreams to guide the way in which to live their lives. Basically, they believe that the Jesuits are sorcerers, and they are afraid of their power.
So when Father LaForgue sets off upriver to join a Jesuit settlement, he sets in motion a series of events over which he has no control. The worst of this, for the Father, is the sexual relationship between his young assistant, Daniel, known as Iwanchou, and Chomina’s daughter, Annuka. Chomina also does not believe that Iwanchou is a suitable husband for his daughter and does his best to finish the relationship. This has deadly consequences.
There will be some passages which will shock you. There is torture, there is murder, there is cannibalism. This is a culture that is red in tooth and claw. What hangs over this story, however, is the fear that one culture will destroy the other. In this world, that makes this an important book to read.