Joseph Boyden,
Three Day Road
(Viking Canada/Penguin, 2005)

The essence of Joseph Boyden's debut novel, Three Day Road, is captured with remarkable precision and brevity in a single sentence 50 pages from the completion of the story. "We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy." Everything else in this terrific book is an expansion on this central notion.

For the past quarter-century, the definitive novel of the Canadian experience of the 1st World War has been Timothy Findley's third book, the Governor General's Award-winning The Wars (1977). According to Findley's Library & Archives of Canada biography, "he wrote the novel in guise of a researcher trying to reconstruct the story of Robert Ross, a soldier of the Great War. The book explores many of the obsessions that colour all his writing: violence, loneliness, a concern for animal rights, and the survival of the individual in a world of madness."

But Findley's revered novel now has a worthy challenger for the title of best fictional reflection of Canada's WWI story in Three Day Road. Boyden has chosen to tell his tale of violence, loneliness and madness primarily from the point of view of Xavier Bird, a Cree Indian from the Moose Factory, Ontario area. Bird and his childhood friend Elijah Weesageechak (pronounced Whiskeyjack by the Wemistikoshiw, or English-speaking Canadians) decide to leave the confines of their Northern Ontario existence behind them and join the Canadian army. But their search for adventure takes them down diverging paths. This despite the fact that the pair remains together, in the same Southern Ontario Rifles company, for the entirety of their military careers.

Elijah, confident in his use of English from his years at the residential school in Moose Factory, becomes a decorated and renowned sniper while Xavier, easily Elijah's equal in terms of marksmanship, is rendered practically invisible as a result of his poor mastery of English, his distaste for killing and his proximity to his more sociable cohort. The friends are drawn together by their shared history and heritage and pushed apart by their differing responses to the horrors of trench warfare. The reader witnesses how war can bore into the soldier's soul latching on to some key aspect of his being and sharpening it, focusing it, until it defines him. Thus Elijah emerges as the killer, addicted to the adrenaline rush of battle and the attention his exploits bring, while Xavier is the hunter who kills simply to survive; silent, efficient, but pained by the excesses of his friend's bloodlust.

Boyden's ability to immerse the reader in the sights and sounds of the battlefield is quite extraordinary. "Big guns have started up in the distance but they are miles away. It's as if the war has moved to another place. It has sucked the life from Saint-Eloi and left it like this, has moved on in search of more bodies to try and fill its impossible hunger." He paints extraordinarily vivid pictures from the limited palette of rain-cloud gray, sodden mud brown and blood red. And Boyden makes the most of his descriptive skills by contrasting the battlefield sequences with a second storyline, told in the first person by Xavier's aunt, Niska.

The greens of the forest, the pristine white of winter snow, the sounds of a canoe on water, and the moose, and the night -- these dominate this portion of Three Day Road. Here the reader learns how Niska raises young Xavier in the bush after rescuing him from the Moose Factory residential school. She teaches her nephew the ways of the hunter and the healer, and Xavier in turn passes much of this on to his friend Elijah. Niska also brings the injured Xavier home upon his return from the war, paddling him back into the bush while attempting to understand the terrible changes that war has written on her nephew's body and mind, attempting to heal him with stories of his youth.

In addition to his three central characters, Boyden has stocked Three Day Road with a wonderful assortment of secondary players. Sean Patrick, Gilberto, Fat, Thompson, Sgt. McCaan and Lt. "Bastard" Breech are among the men who head off to France along with Xavier and Elijah. To Boyden's credit, none of these characters is treated as simple cannon fodder, though many of them are killed in battle as the Canadians help turn the war's tide against the German army. And Boyden, cleverly, does not simply replace his soldiers as they fall. Seen through Xavier's eyes, the replacements remain anonymous, lending far greater weight to losses among the original members of his company.

Three Day Road deserves an honored place alongside Findley's The Wars on bookshelves and university reading lists. It's a moving, insightful book that acknowledges the participation of First Nations people in a war that helped shape Canada's place in the 20th century. It's a story of the Great War but a story of individuals first and foremost. It's a tremendous accomplishment, even without recalling that it's this author's first novel.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 3 September 2005

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