Thursday, May 13, 2010

Three Day Road

Usually, after I've finished a book, it only takes me a few hours to mentally move one so I can pick up another one. That's not to say I didn't enjoy whatever it was that I read, but generally speaking I don't get so emotionally involved with a book that I need to take a break. After I read Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road I couldn't read another book for a week. I didn't even try; I was too attached to the characters and involved in their story to admit that it was over and I needed to find another novel.

In some ways, my inability to move on mirrors the narrative of Boyden's characters. Three Day Road is, on the surface, a story about a Cree sniper coming home after the First World War. It is, of course, about much more than that, though. Xavier has come home wounded and addicted to morphine, a sly drug that helps him forget about the phantom pain that floats in his empty pant leg. He is met by Niska, his aunt, at the train station and together they head down the river on their journey home.

Xavier, though, is not at ease. Between the pain in what's left of his leg and the thick, soft release of the morphine he is unable to escape what he experienced on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he served as a sniper with his childhood friend Elijah. In the canoe, Xavier sleeps in fits, reliving the battles at the Somme and Ypres and Vimy Ridge, and remembering Elijah's slip into addiction and madness and his own decline into depression as the bodies of his friends start to pile up around him.

From the stern of the canoe, Niska can see that Xavier is dying - wants to die. The morphine has cut his appetite so that he doesn't eat, his body feeding on his despair instead. To nourish him with something better, Niska begins to tell Xavier stories of her childhood. She tells him of his grandparents, of how she escaped Residential School to live in the bush. And she tells him stories of his own childhood, after she rescued him from the same school and took him to the bush to learn the arts of hunting and trapping and survival. Elijah came to join them later, and she tells Xavier how proud she was to watch him teach his friend the skills he had acquired.

The trip down river is slated to take about three days; the journey from death to the afterlife, according to the story, is also a three day road. For Xavier, though, the three day journey brings him back to life, rather than death. As Xavier's story alternates with the ones Niska tells, Boyden offers up a picture not only of the horrors of war and the tolls of warfare, but also of how there is healing through memory and storytelling. Much of what Niska tells Xavier is horribly sad - her many winters alone, how she was seduced and used by a French trapper, the Residential School, her father's imprisonment and death - but there is a sort of power in reliving those moments through story. In telling Xavier these things, she gains a kind of power over them. Similarly, by agonizing over his and Elijah's actions in the war, Xavier is able to rise above that reality and experience his memories in a different way.

The amount of research Boyden must have done for this book is staggering. The World War I battle scenes and the trench life he describes are so vivid in their details that you can almost feel the suck of the mud on your feet, even as you read. Similarly, the language he uses and the cadence of his sentences flow off the page so easily that it's easy to forget you're reading and not simply being told a story. This works to make the meticulously crafted scenes seem effortless, allowing the history of the Residential School system, the war, and the general treatment of Native Canadians to come together into a narrative that isn't trying to be educational or political. Rather, those are plot points in the lives of the characters, fully integral to who they are and where they've been - deliberate without feeling forced.

When I reread Three Day Road I wasn't sure how I was going to experience it. The first read completely took my breath away, but some books only manage to do that once. Not so with Boyden. I was enthralled all over again, carried back into the stories of Xavier and Niska with an ease that felt like going home to hear the same family stories that are always told. They're comforting in their familiarity, but they always hook you in because knowing the outcome doesn't determine how much you enjoy the experience of the telling.

Three Day Road
by Joseph Boyden
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)


  1. i read it in class and i found it was an amazing read. I fully understand now the hardships of the first world war and the different batallions. Reading the book was like taking history class all over agin. But this time you feel emotionally bonded to the charactersand the life style they live.

  2. I just finished my essay on Three Day Road and the topic Xavier an admirable character. I argued yes. He shows himself to be caring and loyal to all his counter parts. He is brave and he does what he believes is right in the toughest of situations.

  3. I read three day road in english and i thought the vook was written really well i like how it switch narrators.
    what would be a great essay topic that you could argue both sides?

  4. Quite an interesting story. Three Day Road is my first favourite war story and to make it better a Canadian war story showing the Native's involvement and their past. Enjoyed reading it in English class.

  5. The book was really long and boring. I didn't like the changeing narrotors, and it was only good in the war parts of the book everything else I could have went without.

  6. I'm reading this book in class right now, and it's a very painful read. What a terrible author/writer. Canadian literature is so boring!


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