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by Joe Wiebe
Because of its focus on Canadian soldiers fighting in World War One, Three-Day Road will undoubtedly be compared to Timothy Findley’s 1977 breakthrough, The Wars, which firmly established Findley as one of Canada’s leading literary voices. Joseph Boyden has a long way to go before he can be fairly compared to Findley—this is, after all, Boyden’s first novel—but Three-Day Road is a strong debut that should garner plenty of attention on its own merit.
The events of Three-Day Road are inspired by the real-life exploits of Ojibwa Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow who was the most decorated Native soldier in World War One. Peggy was a prodigiously gifted sniper who some believe killed as many as 378 enemy soldiers himself (though no official total was recorded). He was also one of the few Canadian soldiers who fought throughout the entire war from 1914 to 1918.
Boyden traces two separate Native bloodlines in his family’s distant past, Métis and Micmac, but is otherwise “mostly European.” He teaches Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans, and his collection of short stories, Born With A Tooth, was published by Cormorant Books in 2001.
In Three-Day Road, Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, two young Cree friends from Moose Factory near Hudson Bay in northern Ontario, enlist and go overseas in 1916. Only one returns. There is no mystery as to who survives—the opening chapter reveals it is Xavier—but there is some mystery surrounding the circumstances because his aunt Niska, who travelled from deep in the bush to meet his train, was expecting Elijah instead.
Xavier is a shell of the man he was when he left for the war. He is deaf, has lost a leg, and is addicted to morphine. Niska takes him in her canoe on a three-day voyage back home, and along the way, as Xavier fades in and out of his morphine-hazed consciousness, we learn of his and Elijah’s experiences in Europe. Boyden handles these transitions into flashback exceptionally well, as shown in this excerpt:
“I stare up at the rain that falls down, flickers of lightning cutting through it every few minutes. My body floats above itself. Oh, this medicine is good. I hear my breathing, how the air floods in slowly then recedes from me like waves on a beach. I listen to myself breath, and I close my eyes. After a time I can hear others breathing all around me. I want to tell them to go quiet. Lightning, another flare, pops up out of the darkness and throws a white light on us and on the ditch we live in, our uniforms soaking up the cold water. Elijah is not near. So long has Elijah been around that he is like a part of my own body.”
Elijah and Xavier, though best friends, are very different people. Elijah was schooled by nuns in a residential school. Naturally outgoing, he has a gift for language. Xavier, on the contrary, grew up in the bush with his aunt, who taught him how to live off the land. He is a quiet boy and has difficulty learning English. When Elijah comes to live with Xavier and Niska as a young teenager, Xavier teaches him how to hunt and trap and survive in the wilderness year round.
It is these skills that will serve them in the war where they both become exceptional snipers. There is more to sniping than just being able to shoot accurately; snipers must be able to lie still for hours at a time, hiding virtually in plain sight, until their target comes into range. Elijah and Xavier’s skills as snipers earn them a grudging respect from their fellow soldiers, though the inherent racism they face is harsh and pervasive.
One of the great strengths of this novel is that Boyden does not allow the war story to take over the book. Instead, he alternates chapters between Xavier and Niska’s perspectives. Niska’s memories of her own life are just as compelling as the action sequences described in Xavier’s chapters. From a young age, it is clear that she is different from her peers. Her father was a hookimah, a sort of medicine man who divined where to go hunting by studying the cracks in a moose’s shoulder blade that had been heated in a fire. As Niska grows up, she suffers from convulsive fits which mark her as a hookimah too, which is unusual for a woman. This sets her apart from her people, and she watches as much of her culture is swallowed up by white Canadians. This ironic contrast of “civilized” versus “primitive” culture is potent, especially since civilization here is represented by perhaps the most barbaric and horrendous war the world has ever seen.
Three-Day Road is that rarest of books that works on different levels for different readers. It can be enjoyed as a military history, a study of the tragedy of First Nations people in Canada, or simply as a strong literary novel set against the backdrop of World War One. Read it and see for yourself.
Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer currently working on his first novel.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.