THREE DAY ROAD
By Joseph Boyden
Three Day Road tells the story of a pair of James Bay Cree, Xavier and Elijah, who become famous snipers in the Canadian Army during the First World War. And telling stories is also a large part of what it’s all about. The narrative is a tag-team performance. When Xavier returns home, missing a leg, addicted to morphine and obviously dying, his Auntie Niska picks him up at the train station and together they begin a three-day canoe journey home (meant to suggest the “three day road” of the title, which refers to death). Niska hopes to sustain Xavier on the journey with stories of her own and Xavier’s childhood. In turn, Xavier tells the story of what happened on the Front and Elijah’s descent into madness.
In other words it’s imagined as an oral narrative. And this despite the fact that Niska doesn’t always tell her story out loud to Xavier, who is partly deaf and only occasionally conscious anyway, and Xavier doesn’t talk much to anyone. It is more like a pair of interior monologues presented as an act of story-telling. This is reflected in the style, which is consistently flat and understated, a no-man’s land of prose that shows and doesn’t tell while avoiding the use of words that are more than two syllables. At times this voice has a direct, primitive sort of strength, especially when it’s used to describe battlefield horrors. Burned “bodies melted and black” give off a “smell sweet enough to make the stomach feel bad.” At other times, however, Boyden falls back on the repetitive verbal formulas and clichés that characterize oral story-telling. The writing becomes too simple for its own good, sometimes seeming clumsy and affected. “That winter and the following summer and the winter and summer after that were plentiful and very happy,” Niska says. “But as always happens, the good times bled into harder times and our third winter together proved long and difficult and very cold.” Prose like this, and there is a lot of it, is as numbing as Xavier’s morphine. It also makes the slightest variation in language stand out. When Niska says “I was appalled and mesmerized by what I was becoming” and Xavier “My body radiates pain” you get the feeling the editors missed something. “Appalled,” “mesmerized,” and “radiates” are words we can’t imagine these characters using.
Three Day Road is a book destined for a spot in the CanLit canon. You feel it in the powerful historical narrative, the strong yet taciturn central characters who have a special spiritual connection with nature, the emphasis on close family relationships and the importance of home, and the curious objectivity and lack of verbal flair it is all presented with. There’s no denying its epic quality. Xavier and Elijah are less characters than giant archetypes, the good and evil brothers or the children of nature destroyed by the sickness of civilization. Elijah’s savagery is a both a psychological fact and a case of demonic possession, the spirit of windigo set loose on the battlefield.
The inspiration for the story was the Ojibwa First World War hero Francis Pegahmagabow (who appears – or fails to appear – as “Peggy” in this book). And yet Niska and Xavier remain distant, not fully realized figures. They frequently travel outside their own point of view, either telling stories about events they don’t participate in or floating above it all in a transcendent visionary state. We have the sense that the story is telling them as much as they are telling the story. Their lack of sophistication (we know the girl Xavier falls in love with is a prostitute before he meets her), the foreknowledge we have of how things will turn out (because the novel is told in flashbacks), the familiar historical background (Xavier and Elijah fight at Vimy and Passchendaele), and the brutal predictability of most of the plot, adds up to a book with few surprises. But this also contributes to the elemental power the book has. It’s a war novel, but also a story about the workings of fate and the soul’s struggle with corruption.
Three Day Road is Joseph Boyden’s first novel and at times the writing shows it. The strength of the story makes up for any lack of polish though, and the result is a dramatic debut.
Review first published July 9, 2005.