Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book 34 – Three Day Road

By Joseph Boyden

It’s hard to imagine that Three Day Road is Boyden’s first novel. Not only is it ambitious in scope, it’s remarkably cohesive for its unusual narrative structure and quite gracefully written too (as Kate also noted in her review). However the ambitiousness of the novel is not meant to impress (like Cloud Atlas, for instance), but instead bring to life voices not commonly heard and stories often overlooked by history.

The heart of the novel is centred on thre friendship between Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, young Cree men who voluntarily enlist and become legendary snipers in Europe during the Great War. They leave behind Xavier’s aunt Niska, a medicine woman who, having avoided assimilation, raised both boys in the Oji-Cree tradition in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The story begins after the war is over when Xavier returns home to Niska, physically and emotionally damaged, and addicted to morphine. As aunt and nephew journey back to their camp by canoe, the narrative weaves between the voices of the three characters: Xavier reliving the nightmare of his war experiences in a morphine-induced fever, Elijah obsessively confessing to Xavier about his war exploits, and Niska reaching out to Xavier by telling him about her past. Within this cyclical structure, Boyden also attempts to evoke the Cree and Ojibwe tradition of storytelling.

As a more conventional narrative, Three Day Road has the potential to appeal to a range of readers in the way it taps into multiple experiences.   If you’re interested in war history, the novel is a harrowing account of trench warfare yet on a smaller scale presents an intimate portrait of the modern sniper, whose skill is taken to a new level of specialty during WWI.  If First Nations history is more your thing, the little known WWI hero, Francis "Peggy" Pegahmagabow, served as inspiration for the characters of Elijah and Xavier. This in itself is a great story premise because you have the combination of Native game hunters making the transition to deadly snipers, utilizing their skills on the battlefield to "devastating effect” with the narrative freedom of having them leave the confines of mud-filled trenches into more varied geography (from the Penguin Readers Guide).

To make it even more historically realistic, Boyden places Elijah and Xavier as infantry in the real-life Second Canadian Division, tracing their route throughout their three-year involvement in the war. The 2nd Division also participated in the Western Front’s most atrocious battles (like Passchendale), their victories having (ironically) helped put Canada on the international map. The novel is further enriched by the importance the role Native Canadian soldiers played in the conflict yet only to return home without any official recognition.

Three Day Road portrays the period of upheaval when Aboriginal Canadians were forced to assimilate into early 20th century European-Canadian society by separating children from their families and placing them in residential schools. Niska and Xavier managed to escape assimilation and live out in the bush, but Elijah was a product of a residential upbringing.  Even though Elijah experienced some abuse at the hands of a nun, Boyden does not dwell on him as a victim, but rather, as a survivor making use of his Western education and English skills to gain favour with his division when he and Xavier are stationed in Europe.

Though much of the novel is grounded in historical reality, there are also elements of the supernatural woven into the tale. This is mostly due to Niska being the last of a lineage of shamans and windigo-killers. Some readers may be wary of this potential for cliché, but her character is nevertheless realistically portrayed as a strong, proud woman who maintains her independence and way of life while her people live in towns as second-class citizens and/or have succumbed to alcoholism.

This was the first time I’ve read about WW1 in a fictional work, and frankly, it's not a subject matter I would voluntarily read about. I remembered enough from my history classes to know how horrifying both World Wars were. Part of the reason why this book took a while for me to finish was because it was so very, very dark.  There were many violent depictions of death yet each death was not treated lightly.  As Kate mentioned in her review, “the strength and spirit of the characters really overpowered the dark stuff in a good way so that the book felt really balanced in its depiction of events”. But I still had to take the occasional break from the novel to read something else (which is too bad, as it would've been so fitting had I finished it for Remembrance Day on 11/11/11).

I was nevertheless impressed by Boyden’s meticulous research and skill as a writer. He brought to life all the gruesome details of trench warfare and the cultural genocide of aboriginals while at the same time avoided almost all the clichés associated with writing about those subjects in the “native voice”. Combined with the occasional magic realist touches, I admit Boyden did at times verge dangerously close to cliché, but overall he was able to pull it off without being too hokey. What was amazing was that he was able to make a believable symbolic connection between Niska’s background as a windigo-killer and the disintegrating friendship of Xavier and Elijah as the continuing war took its toll on their sanity. Hopefully I’m not revealing too much, but Boyden ties this all together quite effectively.

Overall There Day Road succeeds as a novel because it was a very personal work for the author. Having a grandfather who served in WWI and a father as a decorated medical officer in WWII, Boyden obviously has a vested personal interest in the history of war. Being of mixed Scottish, Irish and Metis heritage also gives Boyden a measure of legitimacy in writing from a First Nations perspective.  I would definitely recommend Three Day Road for anyone interested in contemporary Canadian literature.  Despite its moments of terrible darkness, it proved in the end to be a very rewarding and enlightening reading experience.

(p.s. was very siked to find a copy of this at my local thrift shop too)


Dragonsongbird said...

I just found you on here and can't wait to see what else you've read. I finished "Three Day Road" a couple of weeks ago. It was excellent! Last week I finished "The Cure For Death By Lightening" which was a really tough read for me - content wise. Now I'm reading a book no one should EVER read (we need a blog just for books that no one should ever read). It's the "House of Night" series which is trying to cash in on the success of the "Twilight" books. so, WHY am I reading it, you might ask. Because, my 11 year old got it from her middle school library and it is rife with sexual content and I need to know what she's read so we can talk about it. But...it's torture!!! :) Thanks for this blog.

meezly said...

and thanks for your comments.

it's always great to see comments from individuals who happen upon my blog.