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Three Day Road (2005)
by Joseph Boyden
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Top Five Books of 2014 (388)
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World War I Fiction (59)
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rabck from rubyrebel; a haunting read set during WWI. Two young Canadian Indian men decide to join up for the war effort, where they are sent to fight in France. The book goes back and forth between the war, life in the trenches and their progression to being snipers because of their hunting prowess. But that prowess was honed on their childhood upbringing in the North Ontario "bush" by Xavier's Aunt Niska. ( )
Toward the end of this harrowing novel about the First World War, a soldier narrator remarks, “We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy.”
So says Xavier Bird, thinking of his boyhood friend and brother in arms, Elijah Whiskeyjack. Neither name actually belongs to them, for they are Cree, a Native people of Canada, and white people have bestowed those handles on them. Likewise, the prejudice the two friends face in the ranks of the Southern Ontario Rifles runs deep, embodied in their insecure, less-than-capable immediate superior, Lieutenant Breech, who views them as alien to begin with, though with gradations that fit his convenience.
Or separate them, rather, to Elijah’s frequent gratification and Xavier’s constant pain. Xavier grew up in the backwoods, but after his mother’s death when he was very young, attended a repressive religious school until his aunt, Niska, rescued him. Elijah, whom he met there, came to live with them later, and Xavier taught him all the backwoods knowledge he has. They became skilled hunters, and at the front, they conduct the ultimate hunt — or Elijah does, anyway. Hence Xavier’s remark about reckoning with what one does to the enemy.
But that’s not where Three Day Road starts, for better or worse. The novel begins with Xavier, one leg amputated and addicted to morphine, coming home to a heart-stricken Niska. She believes he’s returned intending to die; and since she doesn’t know what he saw or did in France, she’s unsure what will help him.
I admire Niska’s resolve, dedication, and passionate attachment to her threatened way of life and her sister’s only child. Much of her narrative has to do with hardship and sacrifice, with rare pleasure cut short by betrayal. In that way, her existence parallels the soldiers’, a touch I like. The blind hatred she endures whenever she ventures into or near town etches a sharp criticism of the white men who presume superiority to her.
However, she recounts many scenes while Xavier is asleep, under the influence of morphine, or just plain silent. Such interior monologues feel like set pieces shoved into the story for the information they contain. I imagine that Boyden might have wrestled with where to put these scenes, because nearly all take place well before the war and would have hampered the main narrative had they appeared chronologically.
Caught between that constraint, Xavier’s understandable reluctance to speak about the unspeakable, and his nearly constant self-medication, the author does his best with Niska’s memories. They just don’t always fit seamlessly.
But Boyden superbly re-creates the First World War, in the trenches and behind the lines, some of the most impressive descriptions of that subject I’ve ever read. Nothing purple, just plain, straight, and spot on.
I also like how Boyden has the two friends’ paths diverge, and what he does with that. Xavier’s the better marksman and tracker, though Elijah’s no slouch, and they’re both assigned to sniper duty. But Elijah speaks better English, knows how to joke, and to put himself forward, so he gets the glory. Using the Cree language, unique to them, he protects Xavier in public from Lieutenant Breech’s ornery mindlessness when he can, because he understands the white man’s insecurity. But he doesn’t share the credit for the sniper exploits, and that burns Xavier more than he’s willing to admit.
The weak link in the novel is the lieutenant, a clichéd depiction and historical anomaly. Junior officers were taught to show courage under fire to the point of recklessness and suffered higher casualty rates, on average, than enlisted men. But Breech almost never faces German bullets, a fault that his superiors would have noticed, and he’s got enough flaws as it is.
Had Boyden allowed him personal bravery, the lieutenant would have seemed truer. Likewise, the two noncommissioned officers Elijah and Xavier know come across as types, the salt-of-the-earth core of any army, though each has skills that make them interesting.
Finally, since the narrative revolves around what’s essentially a squad, lack of other officers makes it seem as if Breech commands an entire company, not a platoon. Again, I understand the desire for economy, but I get a skewed, conflated picture of their battles, as the lens expands to set the stage for famous engagements, only to telescope to almost nothing.
Nevertheless, Three Day Road provides a glimpse of the Native contribution to Canada’s war, a subject I’ve never read about before, and as a trench novel, it’s terrific.
THREE DAY ROAD (2005), is the first book of Canadian author Joseph Boyden's Bird Family trilogy. I read the second book, THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE, a couple years ago and quite enjoyed it, although I thought it went on a bit too long. I would say the same thing about this one. Set during the years before and during the Great War, we follow the wartime adventures of two young Cree men, Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, who come out of the northern wilderness to enlist in the Southern Ontario Rifles. They are sent to France where, over the next few years, they become a feared team of snipers. Elijah, educated by Catholic nuns in a brutal boarding school and the more outgoing of the two, has an appetite for killing. Xavier, who narrates their story, was raised in the bush by his aunt, and is more reluctant about it. Their close friendship begins to unravel as Elijah becomes addicted to morphine. Trench warfare in all its grisly detail is constantly center stage in their story, with all the mud, blood, gore and misery, to the point where you wonder how anyone at all survived.
The other part of the novel is narrated by Xavier's aunt Niska, a medicine woman of sorts, an epileptic outcast who has visions. She tells her own story, as well as how she came to be Xavier's protector.
This part of the novel I found less interesting, and almost wished Boyden had just limited his narrative to the war side of things. But,as was the case in THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE, the writing here is quite beautiful, and kept me reading. I'm not sure yet if I will read the final book of the trilogy. I found these first two at used book sales, and I'm glad I did, because Boyden is a fine writer, no question. Maybe I'll get lucky again. I will highly recommend both of these books, especially if you're interested in good Canadian fiction.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
Beautiful book, absolutely amazing to teach... but I feel I have to take a star off because of the author's dubious credibility, which undermines the whole book.Sigh. (Bonus question - does this make it more or less interesting to teach/Should it be taught? Revelations about the author's claims that he was connected to indigenous communities came out whilst I was teaching this book for I think the 6th time. It made for amazing teaching matter, but we felt we had to remove the book from our curriculum for future years.)
Cree returns from WWI addicted and destroyed by memories of killing his combat crazed best friend, can his medicine woman aunt salvage him?
He has illuminated a forgotten corner of the Great War and that, in itself, is a prodigious achievement.
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Wikipedia in English (1)
Set in Canada and the battlefields of France and Belgium, Three-Day Road is a mesmerizing novel told through the eyes of Niska--a Canadian Oji-Cree woman living off the land who is the last of a line of healers and diviners--and her nephew Xavier. At the urging of his friend Elijah, a Cree boy raised in reserve schools, Xavier joins the war effort. Shipped off to Europe when they are nineteen, the boys are marginalized from the Canadian soldiers not only by their native appearance but also by the fine marksmanship that years of hunting in the bush has taught them. Both become snipers renowned for their uncanny accuracy. But while Xavier struggles to understand the purpose of the war and to come to terms with his conscience for the many lives he has ended, Elijah becomes obsessed with killing, taking great risks to become the most accomplished sniper in the army. Eventually the harrowing and bloody truth of war takes its toll on the two friends in different, profound ways. Intertwined with this account is the story of Niska, who herself has borne witness to a lifetime of death--the death of her people. In part inspired by the legend of Francis Pegahmagabow, the great Indian sniper of World War I, Three-Day Road is an impeccably researched and beautifully written story that offers a searing reminder about the cost of war.
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