Another novel in the trenches. Three Day Road offers a thought-provoking contrast to The Wars, chronicling similar themes through the distinctive experiences of Aboriginal Canadian soldiers and Scottish Canadian officers. Lots of fodder to fill essays about the CanLit canon.
Joseph Boyden’s first novel intertwines the stories of three Oji-Cree from Northern Ontario. Niska is one of the last of her community to live on the land, resisting the move to cities and reserves. Xavier Bird (her nephew) and Elijah Weesageechak (dubbed Whiskeyjack) are friends who enlist in 1915 and use their traditional hunting skills to become famed snipers on the Western Front.
The novel starts in 1919 with Niska coming to town to find one of the boys she saw off to war. She expects Elijah, but discovers Xavier. Niska and Xavier each thinks the other had died. He has lost a leg and is addicted to morphine. She packs him into the canoe to head home. His ailments are not known to her usual medicines, so she tries to heal him with her stories. He relives his stories in his mind. Their journey is a symbol for the three day road travelled by those ready for death.
The world is a different place in this new century, Nephew. And we are a different people. My visions still come but no one listens any longer to what they tell us, what they warn us. I knew even as a young woman that destruction bred on the horizon. In my early visions, numbers of men, higher than any of us could count, were cut down. They lived in the mud like rats and lived only to think of new ways to kill one another. No one is safe in such times, not even the Cree of Mushkegowuk. War touches everyone, and windigos spring from the earth. (p 49)
While Xavier and Elijah are together for the duration of the war, their characters emerge in different ways that ultimately test their friendship. They are both better equipped than many of their wemistikoshiw (white) comrades. The commanders value their tracking and hunting skills, but often see their differences in negative ways. For example, when Xavier kills two injured horses on the transport ship, some officers want him arrested. But the colonel says:
On the contrary, I suggest we commend him for valour. He exhibits the best traits of an officer. The ability of judgment under duress, the will and strength to carry out unpleasant and dangerous duties, decisiveness. (p 190)
Xavier will never become an officer. Xavier is the more adept hunter, but hates his killing role and retreats into himself. He becomes invisible. Elijah was educated by nuns in residential schools and has a gift for English and self-promotion. He becomes obsessed with killing.
Xavier and Elijah’s adventures are inspired in part by real-life sniper Francis Pegahmagabow, still the most decorated Aboriginal Canadian soldier (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel). The novel explores issues that continue to resonate in the Aboriginal experience today – the fallout residential school education and moving people to reserves, loss of culture, spirituality and identity, prejudice in the dominant culture. A powerful story.