Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
Three Day Road is a powerful novel whose protagonists are two James Bay Cree: Xavier Bird and his aunt, Niska.
“You taught me, Niska, that sooner or later each one of us would have to go down the three-day road […].” This fascinating Native proverb, which sheds light on the passage from this world, contrasts vividly with the soldiers’ tragic deaths described throughout the novel by the narrator, Xavier.
Indeed, the bulk of the novel relates the brutality of the First World War through the eyes and experiences of Xavier, who enlists as a sniper with his best friend, Elijah.
The first chapter begins with Xavier’s return from the war, but the entire novel alternates between his memories of his past at the front and the painful aftereffects that he lives with daily. His journey to the depths of hell has left him profoundly traumatized in both body and soul.
The story tells of Niska’s difficult return by canoe to bring back her nephew, who comes home wounded from the war. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the two narrators: Xavier relives the ordeals of his years at the front, while Niska recounts her past to him in an attempt to bring him back to reality before the nightmarish memories of his time as a soldier and his ravaged body usher him into oblivion.
The train station in the town of Moose Factory is the story’s point of departure; Niska’s camp site in the woods at Great Salt Bay, which the wemistikoshiw (the white people) call Hudson Bay, is where the canoe journey comes to an end. In between, the return to each character’s past plunges the reader into both the breathtaking beauty of the Canadian landscape and the hellish depths of the trenches.
Each of the 32 chapters has two titles: one in English, the other in Cree. This is of particular significance, as both narrators are depicted in their authenticity and through their difficult adaptation to the world of the wemistikoshiw. Niska is a passionate character, for she has inherited her father’s gift of clairvoyance. The description of Niska’s gift provides the reader with captivating insights into the sacred elements of her culture specific to the nomadic tribe of the awawatuk:
The awawatuk accepted that I was the natural extension of my father, the new limb through which my family’s power travelled. […] Most often, they (the men) wanted to know where to find game, and so I divined for them, placing the shoulder blade of the animal on coals and dripping water onto it as I had watched my father do. The rare hunter came to me wanting to understand the symbol of a dream and sometimes to learn his future. If I had not experienced a fit in some time, I constructed a shaking tent and crawled into it, summoned the spirits of the forest animals to come inside and join me, so many of them sometimes that the walls of my tent puffed out and drew in with their breath, becoming a living thing all its own. Most often, though, it was the spirit of the lynx that came to me first and stayed through the night, showing through its sharp eyes the secrets of the forest. (p. 131)
Although the aftermath of colonialism, racism, attempts at assimilation and the Native residential schools serve as a backdrop in the novel, it is the richness of the ancestral beliefs that Niska lives by that take centre stage.
The same can be said for Native soldier Xavier: It is not his status as an outsider that captures the reader’s attention; instead, it is his distinctive perception of the world, his sensitivity and his values revealed through flashbacks that stand in stark contrast with those of western soldiers:
This Christmas celebration of theirs bleeds through a week to another celebration of the beginning of the new year. I realize that all of this drinking and false celebrating just masks the sadness. They all talk about what has happened in the last year and speak of how they hope that the next year will be the last year of war. This new year that begins they call 1918. I know that this is how many years have passed since they say their god was born as a man.
This sadness and reflection rubs off on me. I do not like their way of keeping time. Their way is based loosely on the moons but is as orderly as the officers try to keep the trenches, full of meaningless numbers and different names for days that are all the same anyways. I worked it out and I have been with the wemistikoshiw twenty-seven full moons. I’ve been in the battlefields for nineteen full moons. It is a long time, and there is no end in sight for this war they have created. (p. 307-308)
With Niska and Xavier as guides, Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden takes readers on a journey into the richness of Cree culture and values and the horrors of the Great War. The novel is a gripping and extraordinary tribute to Native culture and to the memory of the Native soldiers who fought in the Canadian army.