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Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Three Day Road (original 2005; edition 2005)

by Joseph Boyden

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1,273616,194 (4.27)301
Title:Three Day Road
Authors:Joseph Boyden
Info:Penguin Books (2005), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, ww1, memory, race, body, barbara

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Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (2005)

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Showing 1-5 of 55 (next | show all)
This seemed like a serendipitous discovery when I stumbled on it in an Ontario bookshop last week. Not literally stumbled – although, come to think of it, there were several piles of books on the floor there which gave browsing something of a parkour flavour. But I had negotiated those hazards successfully. No, I meant stumbled on in the metaphorical sense that I found it by chance. Anyway, can we move on? I have a review to write.

So yes, I hadn't heard of Boyden before, but clearly he's something of a literary darling north of the 49th parallel (in Canada – less sure about Kazakhstan) and this novel, his first, begins with what seems to be an entire chapter's worth of adulatory press cuttings to whet your appetite for what follows. Apparently every critic and literary prize in Canada welcomed this one with open arms and legs. By the time you have crawled out of Roman numerals and made it to the start of the story at page 1, you have been primed to be disappointed by anything less than a new Ulysses written on the Stone Tablets of Sinai, with jokes by the ghost of Lenny Bruce.

It is easy to see why critics got excited about it. This story of two Cree boys from northern Ontario who become snipers in the First World War shines a light on an aspect of 1914–18 that most readers will know little about, and it does so in the uncomplicated, present-tense, flashback-heavy style that is so wildly popular these days.

Sure enough, there was a lot here I responded to and that filled a gap untouched by my other First World War reading. It is inspired in part by the real-life Ojibwe sniper Francis Pegahmagabow, the most lethal sniper of the war and one of Canada's most decorated (who, as ‘Peggy’, hovers just off-stage at several points in the novel). But the scenes of chaos and misery from the Western Front are never allowed to take over, and they are always interspersed with chapters describing Elijah and Xavier's Cree childhood and family, juxtapositions that offer the reader a range of unusual and productive comparisons that can be made at his or her leisure. This cross-cutting between industrialised slaughter in Europe and the very different ritualised violence of ‘native’ communities reminded me of what Pat Barker attempted with Melanesian islanders in The Ghost Road, though here the conceit is built much more fundamentally into the book's structure.

This is one of those books that goes for full-on immersive storytelling: it is all about spending plenty of time with these characters, seeing the trenches and the carnage of Ypres and Passchendaele through their eyes, learning, through Xavier's medicine-woman aunt, about how the boys ended up in this place so far away from home.

Perhaps the overriding motif is the windigo, that figure of Algonquian mythology associated with cannibalism and insanity. Just as First Nations communities sometimes suffered outbreaks of internal violence that saw people turning in desperation to eating human flesh, so too (we are encouraged to consider) have developed nations in 1914 begun to cannibalise their own population through what seems to be nothing other than collective madness.

I realized then that sadness was at the heart of the windigo, a sadness so pure that it shrivelled the human heart and let something else grow in its place. To know that you have desecrated the ones you love, that you have done something so damning out of a greed for life that you have been exiled from your people forever is a hard meal to swallow, much harder to swallow than that first bite of human flesh.

Much as I enjoyed the story and the general idea, I must admit there was something about the prose style that stopped me from ever loving this book the way I'm sure many others will love it. The prose isn't bad – it just doesn't display much intelligence or wit; there's a kind of flat, undemonstrative quality to it that, perhaps, is appropriate given its narrators but that left me slightly cold. I couldn't shake off a vague sense of Creative Writing courses, reinforced not only by the present-tense narration but by the alternating narrators in different chapters, and the metaphors that tried, I thought, a little too hard to show off their cultural background (‘His skin is the colour of cedar ash in the setting sun’). There is also a certain amount of ‘magic Indian’ stuff going on – a face-value acceptance of some of the Cree mythology and ritual – that sits very uneasily with me.

Still, this is a book I'd recommend. If you want to know more about Canada's involvement in the war, and First Nations participation in particular, it's a brilliant introduction – and you'd have to be a hard-hearted reader indeed to resist the melodrama of violence and insanity that Boyden skilfully builds up for his climax. ( )
  Widsith | May 9, 2015 |
Excellent! It was so incredible to read a book about Native people from the perspective of a Native person. No stereotypes, no white man to the rescue and no European mentality. ( )
  Jolynne | Apr 20, 2015 |
“Nephew cries out but then goes silent again. The sound of it, the animal fear at the very bottom of that cry, makes me think something I haven’t thought about in a long time. It is the story of my childhood. Now I tell it to you, Xavier, to keep you alive.”

Cree youth Xavier Bird is raised in the old ways by his auntie, Niska, who lives in the solitude of the northern Ontario bush. Elijah Whiskeyjack comes into Xavier’s life, and the two boys are inseparable. As young men and accomplished hunters, they are employed as snipers when they enlist to serve in WWI. They survive the horrors of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, among others, but, like all soldiers, are forever changed. Elijah develops a crippling morphine addiction and goes mad, to all appearances, coming to love the human kill. Ironically, it is Xavier who will later fight for his life against morphine – he will return home with the habit of a needle in his arm, and one leg – his physical being all but unrecognizable to Niska. On the “three day road,” as she paddles them to their home, she will do her best to save him by feeding him stories of her past, his own past, and the larger past of their people, the Cree of northern Ontario. Whether she will be able to save him – to pull him back from the brink – is the suspense that drives the narrative.

“I will tell the elders the many strange things I’ve seen ... the bodies of the dead everywhere so that one gets used to the sight of them swelling in the rain, the shells that whistle from out of nowhere on a quiet morning and blow the arms and head and legs from the man you talked to the day before. But especially I will tell the elders how after a shell attack life returns to normal so fast, how one’s mind does not allow him to dwell on the horror of violent death, for it will drive him mad if he lets it."

Three Day Road is an impressive debut novel, to say the least. Boyden’s powerful prose as he writes of a soldier’s experience of war reminded me more than once of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. It was easy to invest in Xavier’s return home: to hope with Niska that might heal and be made whole again. My one criticism of the novel is that it seemed to have a much longer “middle” than necessary. Still, I recommend. ( )
6 vote lit_chick | Apr 6, 2015 |
Just wow! Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden is a masterfully interwoven story of two Cree snipers in the First World War and their Auntie living in the bush of northern Ontario.

Simply told but deep, dark and intense all the same. The graphic battle scenes are stomach turning.

Sometimes the tales go on a little too long but the language and manner of storytelling ensures Three Day Road will stay in my mind for a very long time. Very highly recommended. ( )
1 vote Zumbanista | Nov 12, 2014 |
Wonderful book. Superb storytelling. When I begin some books, I can tell right from the start it is going to be a good book. This is one of those. The book has a powerful beginning that hooked me. Not very far in I had a sudden sense of where the story might end. I read something into one line of prose. I rarely rate a book 5 stars and I rarely read a book this good.

There are multiple stories here, woven together. The main story is about two James Bay Cree Indians who enlist in the Canadian Army and are sent to fight the Hun in WWI. Only one returns. The story moves back and forth between characters and in time from their youth to the war to after the war, as well as to earlier days of the Cree and the time of their Aunt who brings one of the young men home on the Three Day Road. The Aunt's life and early Canadian life in the greater James Bay - Moose Factory area is the other story woven into the story. The transitions were mostly very effective but a couple less so. I also thought the narrative stretched maybe a little too long towards the middle of the book. These are minor complaints about a great book. Highly recommended. ( )
4 vote RBeffa | Sep 12, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 55 (next | show all)
He has illuminated a forgotten corner of the Great War and that, in itself, is a prodigious achievement.

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Joseph Boydenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
López Lobo, ÁlexTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143037072, Paperback)

Joseph Boyden's first novel is the story of two Cree friends, Xavier and Elijah, who leave their pristine northern country to end up in the horrific trenches of World War I. Loosely based on the real life of a famous Canadian sniper, the story is told from two first-person views: those of Xavier and his old aunt and only living relative, Niska. After the war, Niska is taking her wounded nephew back home north to the bush in a canoe. Their trip is the three-day road of the title, which also refers to the journey taken after death. The story of the war is told in flashbacks on this journey as Xavier recovers from morphine addiction. Niska also relates various stories to Xavier, believing there is "medicine in the tale."

Boyden is a natural storyteller. Both the Native tales of the north and the grim accounts of the war in France and Belgium have the ring of truth. His images can be subtly appropriate--raiders who go over the top are "eaten by the night"--and his characterizations are excellent, especially the three main players and Xavier's Canadian trenchmates. Eventually, Elijah seems to feed on the death all around him, becoming a "windigo," while Xavier begins to question the sanity of the war and his friend's growing madness, realizing "we all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy." Not for the squeamish reader, this is a powerful novel that takes a new angle on a popular subject, "the war to end all wars." --Mark Frutkin, Amazon.ca

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:15 -0400)

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"...It is 1919 and Niska, an Oji-Cree medicine woman, has left her home in the bush of northern Ontario to recieve Xavier Bird, her only relation who has returned from the trenches of Europe.Gravely wounded and addicted to morphine, Xavier recounts how he and his best friend, Elijah Whiskeyjack, prowled the battlefields as snipers of enormous skill and how the circumstances of their deadly craft led them to very different fates.Told with unblinking focus, this is a stunning tale of brutality, survival, and rebirth that marks the arrival of a prodigious new talent." From the bookjacket.… (more)

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