For too long, I looked at my new copy of Three Day Road, as it sat in the pile of books that I want to read over the summer. Over and over again, I read the back of the cover, interested in what it was saying, but never taking the plunge to opening it, and starting to read it. I’m not sure what was holding me back. It seemed like the book would be too heavy, or too intense, or maybe the blurb was just a tease about the story of the First World War.
Regardless, I finally did open Three Day Road, and only a couple of days later, I have finished it.
Joseph Boyden has created a wonderfully crafted narrative that intertwines the story of three First Nations people before, and during the time of the First World War. The story in Three Day Road is engrossing, graphic, and tragic.
Two main perspectives are used to narrate the story: Auntie Niska, one of the last Cree women to live off the land in the old ways, tells the stories of her life while she paddles her Nephew, Xavier Bird, down the river after he has returned home from the Great War crippled, and addicted to morphine. Xavier provides the second voice in the novel, telling the incredible tales of himself and his best friend, Elijah Whiskeyjack, as they volunteered to join the war effort, and then go to Europe to experience some of the most horrific battles that the war had to offer. Xavier is haunted by what transpired in the trenches of Europe, of what he had to witness, and of what he saw happen to his best friend, Elijah.
The war tales are brilliantly written. They provide excitement and suspense, but Boyden does not hold back on his violent descriptions of trench warfare, or of the sniper warfare that Xavier and Elijah embark on. Their exploits lead them to becoming decorated soldiers, well respected among their peers, but Xavier is forced to watch as his best friend in the whole world deteriorates before his eyes. Riddled with addiction, to drugs, and to killing, Elijah transforms as the war wears on. Xavier must acknowledge these changes, and recognize them in himself as well.
Can people not only survive the war, but survive it with a part of their soul still intact?
Boyden takes us on a journey that visits the most infamous/famous battles of the war, specifically from the Canadian perspective. We go to the Somme, to Vimy Ridge, to Passchendale. Xavier and Elijah are a part of a very strong unit, one that is a victim of its own success, being continually sent somewhere new after doing well. The only reward for being strong soldiers is more work, which leads to more problems, and more death.
The storytelling of the novel is a central way in which the plot is advanced. Niska tells stories of her youth to Xavier, in hopes of making him feel better upon his return home. Here we learn of the changing world in which these First Nations people lived. The birth of the residential schools, the atrocities that happened within, the separation of the old ways and the new. Niska is brave and strong, living off the land as her ancestors had done, rarely feeling the need for the city living that had been brought to them by the British and the French. In her tales, Niska also describes the childhood of Xavier and Elijah, the blooming of their friendship, and their lives together.
Xavier himself tells the stories of what lead them to the war, and many of the descriptions of the events that transpired during those terrible years. He tells these stories to the audience, but not to others, as he is the quiet one, often wanting silence more than anything, especially from the constant ringing in his ears. He also tells stories to Elijah to pass the time during the war. The stories of when they were younger, and more innocent men, before they had come to Europe to experience all of the terrible things they had to.
The final set of stories are those told by Elijah to Xavier, as he becomes more prone to sneak off in the night to hunt the Germans. He returns with stories that horrify Xavier, and lead to the slow downfall of the man, and friend, who is perceived as a war hero.
Three Day Road is a story that describes the savagery of the war in perfect detail. There is blood, and guts, and it is not pleasant. This is not a sugarcoated version of what transpired in those trenches, but an honest one. He does not restrain himself in describing the explosions of blood, or the random limbs found on the battlefield. It is how our characters are able to deal with these atrocities that truly drives this novel forward. There are the small things that the men cling to, in order to keep them human. And there are the things that are done that are barely human, but either keep them alive, or keep them sane, or make them think that they are staying the same.
This novel is about coping with brutality, and how to survive it.
It is also the story of the First Nations, and their forced transitions into the world of the Europeans, and of the army. There is the desire to be seen, to be respected, all while trying to maintain who they are, and where they came from. The traditions are thrown in direct conflict with the modern, and Xavier spends much time trying to strike a balance between the two.
This is a highly entertaining read, and one that is wonderfully written, and full of drama to keep you turning the pages. There is not just one solid story here, but three. The story of Niska, the story of Xavier, and the story of Elijah. They are all three very rich characters who are developed incredibly well by their actions, and by the stories that they tell.
I enjoyed this novel so much, that even before completing Three Day Road, I had already ordered another Boyden book, to read more about the cultures, and the deep characterization that he is able to create.
Joseph Boyden is already a great Canadian author, one who has piled up the awards and prizes for his work. Upon completion of Three Day Road, I can already understand why.
A definite great novel to put on your personal reading list. Just don’t let it sit for as long as I did.