Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden skillfully blends two interlocking stories. It begins when Niska, an Oji Cree Medicine Woman in Northern Ontario, receives word that her nephew, Xavier Bird, has died in the trenches in World War I. When she learns his boyhood friend, Elijah Whiskeyjack, has survived and is on his way home, she decides to make the journey to the train station to retrieve him. But it is not Elijah who steps off the train. It is her nephew, Xavier. He has come home a broken man, both physically and mentally. He lost a leg in the war, is addicted to morphine, suffers from PTSD, and is haunted by the horror of what he witnessed in the battlefields of France and Belgium. Niska embraces her nephew and takes him to the canoe to paddle the three-day journey home.
The novel unfolds in the first-person point of view, alternating between the voices of Niska and Xavier. Aware of her nephew’s mental anguish, his physical pain, and his addiction to the white man’s medicine, Niska tells him stories of their respective childhoods, their intimate connection with nature, and the rituals and ceremonies of their people. It is through storytelling she hopes to save him by reminding him of who he is, where he came from, and the values he inherited from his culture.
Alternating with Niska’s stories are Xavier’s stories of his horrific experiences in the battlefields of WWI. At times, he seems to be speaking to Niska; at others, he mumbles to himself; while at other times, the dialogue seems to be internal and experienced as terrifying flashbacks. But at all times, the description is graphic. Xavier narrates his story through the haze of morphine. So his narrative is episodic and confused, the locations and trenches interchangeable, the action repetitive. But that is to be expected in the fog of war.
Boyden immerses the reader in the horrors of war. Bits and pieces of human limbs and rotting corpses litter the landscape. The countryside is in shreds. The mud is ubiquitous—soldiers having to crawl through it on their bellies in no-man’s-land or wade knee-deep in it in the trenches. We hear the constant barrage of guns and explosions which eventually cause Xavier to lose some of his hearing. We smell the rotting corpses, the stench of human waste and filthy uniforms on bodies that haven’t been bathed. We feel the lice crawling up and down the soldiers’ limbs and rats nibbling on human skin. We squash together, jostling for position in confined quarters. And we see the fear in men’s eyes as they are about to face death.
No one can experience the horrors of war and remain unchanged. Xavier and Elijah are no exception. At first, their bond seems unbreakable. But as their reputation as skilled snipers develops, their bond weakens and the ensuing tension becomes palpable. Elijah plummets down a path that causes Xavier to question his sanity. And, eventually, Xavier’s grip on reality also seems to disintegrate.
The alternating shifts in points of view are clear and provide a strong contrast between the killing fields of Europe and the pristine majesty of the wilds in Northern Ontario. Boyden’s characters are well-developed. Niska emerges as a strong, authentic character living in harmony with nature and intimately connected with her cultural heritage in spite of efforts to indoctrinate her into the dominant culture’s world view. Xavier and Elijah are depicted as unique individuals who develop different coping mechanisms to survive the violence and insanity of life in the trenches. Each is plagued with internal demons.
This does not make for easy or light reading, primarily because of the graphic descriptions of the killing fields in Europe during WWI. But it is a compelling narrative and recommended for anyone interested in the historical fiction of this period.