Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Boyden, Joseph. (2005). Three Day Road. Penguin Group; Toronto. 

Appropriately, I finished reading Three Day Road during my trip to Thunder Bay last weekend. The setting for this novel is partly in the bushes of Moose Factory in Northern Ontario, and partly in Europe during World War I. It ties in many stories of First Nations lifestyle and culture by describing, in beautifully narrative form, the life of Niska – a woman who is the last Oji-Cree medicine woman to live off the land. Alternatively, the novel is also filled with despair, fear, and sorrow in the stories told by Niska’s nephew, Xavier Bird. Xavier goes through many hard experiences fighting away from his homeland in Ypres and the Somme, and loses his best friend Elijah Weesageechak (aka. Whiskeyjack) to madness and morphine.

A monument in Thunder Bay to the First Nations who served in World Wars.
A Thunder Bay monument recognizing the “Local Indians” who lost their lives in the First World War. 

This story was loosely based on Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibway from the Parry Island (now Wasauksing) band who fought in the First World War, and was inspired by Joseph’s own family history (Wikipedia articleBronwyn Drainie, 2005). Joseph’s maternal grandfather and uncle on his father’s side both served in World War I (Wikipedia article). Some disturbing stories surface in the narratives of Niska and Xavier: tales of the corrupted, human flesh-eating windigos; the treatment of young native students in residential schools; the tactics taken by elite snipers to catch their ‘kills’; and the competing desires of a young ‘bush Indian’ working in the trenches (Bronwyn Drainie, 2005).

Xavier and Elijah frequently appear as one character (Xavier describes himself as a ‘brown shadow’ in the presence of Elijah), and this is no mistake on the part of the author. Elijah is a ruthless killer, driven by unknown forces to gain the respect of his comrades, and he can speak excellent English. Xavier is quieter, more rational, and a better sniper, but his refusal to blend into the European culture leaves him an outsider. Despite the ‘oneness’ of this character, there is a symbolism to the number three – which comes up, most centrally, in the reference to the three day road to death (Wikipedia article).

I imagine that the content and structure of this novel will make it excellent fodder for analysis by Canadian literature students everywhere. It is also a fascinating and engaging tale which draws the reader into multiple narratives. Highly recommended!

You can view a video of Joseph Boyden talking about Three Day Road on YouTube here:


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