Three Day RoadBy Joseph Boyden
The violence and brutality of war are not my idea of enjoyable subject matter. Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road is indeed a story of war. But it is also the story of best friends. Their physical journey from the Ontario bush to the trenches of Europe mirrors their interior journey — from peace and solitude to horror, and back again.
Elijah and Xavier are two young men from the Cree nation who join the Canadian army in World War I. Both are experienced hunters who are comfortable in the bush. The choice to immerse themselves in a European war is mostly Elijah’s, but Xavier follows.
Elijah is accustomed to life in a remote wilderness, but before going to live with Xavier and his Auntie Niska, he spent years in a residential school. On the surface he appears unscathed by this experience, despite the abuse that he has undergone. He blossoms around people and quickly wins over his fellow soldiers. His charm and wit become legendary in the Canadian army and his facility with language allows him to find a place with his compatriots.
Xavier, however, is happier in the company of animals than in the atmosphere of forced companionship of the army. His English is poor, and he often relies on Elijah to translate for him.
Both Elijah and Xavier prove themselves to be skilled with firearms. They quickly become a team of snipers, at times given privileges the others are not. But while Xavier cannot reconcile the idea of killing another man, Elijah thrives on it. Elijah becomes progressively more obsessed with killing, all the while charming officers, lieutenants and privates alike. Xavier watches his best friend descend into a flurry of slaughter and madness, and must then ask himself whether he has the power to stop him.
The war narrative is interspersed with Niska’s tales. Niska has great power inherited from her father and has tried to pass her skills onto Xavier. Her stories of the Wendigo, a spirit that can possess a person, are particularly powerful. Xavier’s traditional knowledge may be his saviour in this world of indescribable misery.
Three Day Road is a graphic and unflinching portrayal of trench warfare, contrasted by the love that exists among Elijah, Xavier and Niska. Their history and stories are poignant and beautiful. Somehow, in this novel, the beauty wins out.