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Review: Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden
Penguin, 2005. 368 pp. $17

Toward the end of this harrowing novel about the First World War, a soldier narrator remarks, “We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy.”

So says Xavier Bird, thinking of his boyhood friend and brother in arms, Elijah Whiskeyjack. Neither name actually belongs to them, for they are Cree, a Native people of Canada, and white people have bestowed those handles on them. Likewise, the prejudice the two friends face in the ranks of the Southern Ontario Rifles runs deep, embodied in their insecure, less-than-capable immediate superior, Lieutenant Breech, who views them as alien to begin with, though with gradations that fit his convenience.

Photo of a nighttime German barrage on Allied lines, believed to be Canadian troops at Ypres, 1915 (courtesy On the Fringe of the Great Fight by Colonel George G. Nasmith, C.M.G. Mcclelland, Goodchild & Stewart Toronto 1917, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in the United States)

Or separate them, rather, to Elijah’s frequent gratification and Xavier’s constant pain. Xavier grew up in the backwoods, but after his mother’s death when he was very young, attended a repressive religious school until his aunt, Niska, rescued him. Elijah, whom he met there, came to live with them later, and Xavier taught him all the backwoods skills he has. They became skilled hunters, and at the front, they conduct the ultimate hunt — or Elijah does, anyway. Hence Xavier’s remark about reckoning with what one does to the enemy.

But that’s not where Three Day Road starts, for better or worse. The novel begins with Xavier, one leg amputated and addicted to morphine, coming home to a heart-stricken Niska. She believes he’s returned intending to die; and since she doesn’t know what he saw or did in France, she’s unsure what will help him.

I admire Niska’s resolve, dedication, and passionate attachment to her threatened way of life and her sister’s only child. Much of her narrative has to do with hardship and sacrifice, with rare pleasure cut short by betrayal. In that way, her existence parallels the soldiers’, a touch I like. The blind hatred she endures whenever she ventures into or near town etches a sharp criticism of the white men who presume superiority to her.

However, she recounts many scenes while Xavier is asleep, under the influence of morphine, or just plain silent. Such interior monologues feel like set pieces shoved into the story for the information they contain. I imagine that Boyden might have wrestled with where to put these scenes, because nearly all take place well before the war and would have hampered the main narrative had they appeared chronologically. Caught between that constraint, Xavier’s understandable reluctance to speak about the unspeakable, and his nearly constant self-medication, the author does his best with Niska’s memories. They just don’t always fit seamlessly.

But Boyden superbly re-creates the First World War, in the trenches and behind the lines, some of the most impressive descriptions of that subject I’ve ever read. Nothing purple, just plain, straight, and spot on:

Once the shelling has gone quiet, we make our way out and survey the damage. I’m surprised to see that very little looks different than it did before. There is the same mud and puddles and torn-up wagons and piles of bricks. The only real difference is the bitter smell of cordite and the sweeter smell of blood that is as rich in the air as if we’d just butchered a large moose.

I also like how Boyden has the two friends’ paths diverge, and what he does with that. Xavier’s the better marksman and tracker, though Elijah’s no slouch, and they’re both assigned to sniper duty. But Elijah speaks better English, knows how to joke, and to put himself forward, so he gets the glory. Using the Cree language, unique to them, he protects Xavier in public from Lieutenant Breech’s ornery mindlessness when he can, because he understands the white man’s insecurity. But he doesn’t share the credit for the sniper exploits, and that burns Xavier more than he’s willing to admit.

The weak link in the novel is the lieutenant, a clichéd depiction and historical anomaly. Junior officers were taught to show courage under fire to the point of recklessness and suffered higher casualty rates, on average, than enlisted men. But Breech almost never faces German bullets, a fault that his superiors would have noticed, and he’s got enough flaws as it is. Had Boyden allowed him personal bravery, the lieutenant would have seemed truer. Likewise, the two noncommissioned officers Elijah and Xavier know come across as types, the salt-of-the-earth core of any army, though each has skills that make them interesting.

Finally, since the narrative revolves around what’s essentially a squad, lack of other officers makes it seem as if Breech commands an entire company, not a platoon. Again, I understand the desire for economy, but I get a skewed, conflated picture of their battles, as the lens expands to set the stage for famous engagements, only to telescope to almost nothing.

Nevertheless, Three Day Road not only provides a glimpse of the Native contribution to Canada’s war, a subject I’ve never read about before, as a trench novel, it’s terrific.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.