A few Christmases past, Joseph Boyden’s novel Through Black Spruce kept me turning pages for an entire day, following the concurrent stories of a comatose Will Bird’s reflection on his life while his niece Annie Bird tells him her own stories in an attempt to revive him. Will’s life in Moosonee (a historically Cree town on James Bay) is juxtaposed with Annie’s alternatingly glamourous and seedy adventures in Toronto, Montreal and New York.
A few years and one Orenda later, I was searching for a breath of fresh fiction among my shelves, where I chanced upon a recent “We Were About To Get Rid Of This” gift from my family, Three Day Road. Although Three Day Road was Boyden’s first novel, it was the last of his three that I came across. After finishing it, I find myself comparing it to the template set by Through Black Spruce and I am struck by how many similarities in style and structure there are among the two. Indeed, if I had read them in a more compressed time frame, I might have been disappointed, but instead I found myself enjoying those same techniques. Oddly, although Three Day Road precedes the other chronologically, I find myself comparing it against the template of Through Black Spruce.
In Three Day Road, Niska (the Cree word meaning “goose”) leaves her remote lifestyle to meet her nephew Xavier Bird, returning to Canada badly inured and psychologically traumatized from the First World War. Again, Boyden uses a multi-protagonist style, with one of the narrators again in a non-communicative state. This time, the narrative is dominated by Xavier’s story, recalling to himself and his aunt his journey to Europe, his training and the steadily increasing horror and tragedy he sees in the war. Niska, meanwhile, feeds Xavier with stories aloud to heal him as Annie did for Will. Niska’s stories are of her own life, learning and growing in James Bay territory, the sorrowful imprisonment and killing of her father by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, her rescue of Xavier from his Moosonee residential school and her struggles coming to terms with her role as a mitew, a medicine person, and windigo killer.
For much of its thickness, Three Day Road is a war novel. Xavier and boyhood friend Elijah Waseegachak (Whiskeyjack) serve in the Southern Ontario Rifles battalion, fighting through many of the notable battles of the Canadian forces: Saint-Eloi, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and others. The tracking, hunting and self-regulatory skills Xavier learned in the boreal wilderness from Niska and passed on to Elijah become crucial in the trench and village warfare. Xavier works closely with Elijah in a killing tandem as Elijah gains increasing notoriety for his skills as a sniper, his boisterous nature, and his Queen’s English. Although Xavier’s initially poor grasp of English improves steadily the longer he stays with his company, he generally refrains from speaking it, keeping to himself and shadowing his aunt’s solitary lifestyle.
At the very start of the book, we are introduced to a brutalized Xavier: he has lost half a leg, he can barely speak and is badly addicted to morphine. Xavier tells his recollection of the war calmly, but with sadness. His story kept me gripped – in his escalating success and skill, how does his war end? For the present too, I kept reading: what would happen to the crooked shell of his current state? I confess that I could not put it down many times I perhaps should have, spilling away many hours.