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Manitoba History: Review: Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

by Roland Bohr
History Department, University of Winnipeg

Number 59, October 2008

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In his debut novel Three Day Road, Joseph Byoden tells a powerful and dramatic story of two Cree men from Moose Factory, Xavier and Elijah, who experience the horrors of trench warfare in World War I as snipers with the Canadian forces in Belgium and France. Through the perspective of Niska, Xavier’s aunt, Boyden presents a parallel story of an Aboriginal woman caught up i n rapid cultural change and personal loss. The story is told in flashbacks, alternating between Niska’s and Xavier’s perspective.

Niska and Xavier come from a family whose traditional obligation has been the extermination of cannibals, persons who had turned into a windigo. In northern Cree culture the concept of “windigo,” the ultimate expression of selfishness through survival cannibalism, was believed to eventually cause an unstoppable and irreversible desire for human flesh and for killing in the afflicted person. In order to remove such a threat from a community, northern Cree people called upon specialists who had the necessary ritual knowledge and skills to deal with persons who had turned windigo.

As a young woman, after the death of her father, Niska moved away from the settlement of Moose Factory to live a reclusive life in the bush, sustaining herself through hunting, trapping and gathering. When her sister was incapacitated, she ended up raising her nephew Xavier, whom she trained to be a trapper, hunter and marksman. Eventually, the two took in Xavier’s friend Elijah, who spent his pre-teen years in a residential school. Soon, Elijah also learned and eventually excelled at hunting and trapping.

As young men, Xavier and Elijah decided to join the Canadian military to serve overseas. Soon marginalized in the military as Aboriginal people, they eventually gained the attention of their superiors and the grudging respect of their fellow soldiers through their excellence as marksmen.

Aboard ship, on the troop transport to Europe, both witnessed the abuse of morphine by non-Aboriginal soldiers. When they finally entered the trenches, the use of morphine made bearable the pain from their injuries, as well as the mental strain caused by their horrific experiences of combat. However, under the strain of war the two friends developed in different directions. While Xavier became increasingly protective of Elijah, Elijah discovered his aptitude and taste for killing and turned to increasingly gruesome and maniacal behaviour. Eventually, he became the kind of monster Xavier and his ancestors have been trained to slay.

The chapters describing Xavier’s and Elijah’s experiences are interwoven with sections of Niska telling her life story, illustrating the growing influence of the Hudson’s Bay Company, various levels of government, as well as missionaries, clergy and residential schools on Cree communities on Hudson Bay.

While the story is told with the dramatic flow of a page-turner, the language creates vivid images of the stark landscape of the Hudson Bay Lowlands and the boreal forest with its rivers, rocks and lakes, but also of the horrific fighting in moonscapes of craters, shell holes, dugouts and trenches on the western front. The story contains aspects of deep tragedy, but also of healing and hope and presents an interesting approach in its combination of a First World War background with Aboriginal perspectives and elements such as the windigo theme, transplanted to the battlefields of Europe.

Canadian author Joseph Boyden claims Irish, Scottish and Métis roots and has published several short stories. He divides his time between northern Ontario, and New Orleans, where he teaches writing at the University of New Orleans.

Page revised: 15 February 2015

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