Book Review: Joseph Boyden’s “Three Day Road”

In a quick and dirty nutshell, Joseph Boyden‘s Three Day Road tells the story of Xavier Bird, a young Oji-Cree man from the bush near Moose Factory, Ontario. Together with his best friend Elijah, he travels far from home with the South Ontario Rifles and becomes an accomplished sniper. Afterwords, his spirit and body broken, Xavier returns to his aunt Niska, who paddles him deep into the bush towards the home of his childhood. Experiences in the trenches of the First World War are interspersed with memories of Niska’s coming of age as a diviner and healer for the few remaining “bush Indians” who continue to resist the pull of the white towns and the rum, exploitation, and prejudice that came with them.

A striking theme in this novel is the shock of Niska’s spiritual and natural world colliding with that of white Ontario–with its religion, RCMP, and residential schools. Through Boyden’s telling, it is obvious that the systems imposed on the First Nations of Canada were grossly out of touch with the practical and natural realities of life in this country. A familiar theme, yes, but its representation in Three Day Road took my breath away with its absurdity and immediacy.

In another quick and dirty nutshell, I liked this book. I liked Xavier, a quiet young man whose inner jealousies, comforts, fears, and joys play across the mind and heart we are privy to, but remain hidden from the soldiers in his company. I liked his Aunt Niska, a wise woman whose strength comes not necessarily from taught knowledge but from careful and close observation, a firm sense of self, and an ability to do, under any circumstances, what must be done. I loved the descriptions of the bush Niska and Xavier call their home, I loved its almost otherworldly beauty. I loved that this beauty is here, in Canada, though in smaller and smaller spaces now. I hated the war and the futility and brutality of trench life and the various suicidal “pushes” the soldiers were ordered to participate in, but then, who wouldn’t? I was taken by the sensuality of the book–physical, natural, spiritual.

I liked this book. What’s not to like? I suppose that Three Day Road is long, so if you don’t like long books, you may not like it, and it’s heavy, so if you don’t like literature that takes a more serious tone, you may not like it. But if you allow yourself to be pulled in by the beauty of the telling and the emotional threads of the story you will find yourself whizzing through the novel, dodging bullets and yearning for a comforting voice in the din and a warm fire in the rainy night.

If you like Canadian literature and/or history, or literature by and about the First Nations people of Canada, or action scenes and technical descriptions of early 20th-century warfare, or sensual descriptions of intimacy and the natural world, Three Day Road is a book you will like.

Or perhaps “like” is the wrong word. You will respect this novel, you will be pulled by it, you will be struck by it. You will start a long journey and reach the end sooner than you think. And like me, you will recommend this book to others.