Sunday, January 30, 2011

Three Day Road

Part of the joys of being a teacher on a Cree reservation is trying to teach materials that are culturally relevant for the students, and will actually engage them when they’re reading. Usually Aboriginal stories are good enough for my students, but they also enjoy anything that has to do with trapping, survival, and humor. I try to stay away from stories that deal with domestic violence, because, quite frankly, for most of these kids, they’ve already lived it and don’t want to relive it again. Anyway, Three Day Road , by Joseph Boyden, came to me as a recommendation from another teacher. He’d had tried it with his grade twelve students, and told me that they absolutely loved it. Such a glowing review, made me decide to check it out.

Ah Three Day Road, despite the glowing reviews, I was honestly hesitant to read you because I believed you looked like a boring book. I thought you would be filled with endless prattle about the land and cheesy Cree dialogue. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to relate to anything being told, and that you would be a complete and utter waste of my time. Lucky for both you and me, my predictions were wrong: you are truly an amazingly powerful and intense novel.

The story is told in a non-linear format, circular in nature, and is built off of the structure of traditional Aboriginal stories. Reading it is like taking a walk in the woods  - you start somewhere, and then you meander, and, in the very end, you return to where you started; however,  you’ve changed a little and the environment around you has changed a little too. You’ve become a slightly different person in those moments of awareness.

This novel surrounds three characters: Niska (a Cree medicine woman), Xavier Bird (Niska’s nephew, and a returning war hero), and Elijah Whiskeyjack (the trickster of the tale and Xavier’s best friend). In the first storyline, Niska is recalling her life while nursing the war-wounded Xavier. She speaks of assimilation, and the struggle of her people and herself to keep  culture and independence alive. Her story is tinged with sadness, and the awareness that the old way of life is dying (which relevant on reservations even today). In the second storyline, the wounded Xavier is remembering his experiences during World War One, and how the war affected both he and Elijah differently. This storyline, in my opinion, was the most memorable and also most horrific, as it dealt with a descent into madness and brought the witiko myth to life. Both Xavier and Elijah are portrayed as flawed individuals during World War One, whose surroundings cause them to do things that they would have never thought possible in the bush before. Throughout the novel, Boyden does an excellent job at maintaining the unique individual voices of each character, and thus is able to create characters that seem like living breathing people.

Boyden has done his research here. First, The horrors of World War One are portrayed accurately, and his descriptions of the lice, mud, disease, and madness are unforgettable. Reading it, I felt like I was actually experiencing a first-person account of trench warfare.  The imagery used burned itself into my brain, and there are some scenes I doubt I will ever forget even if I never read this book again. Second, not only has Boyden done an accurate portrayal of World War One, but he has also done a magnificent job of incorporating historical figures from the Cree people into this novel. For example, Niska’s father is modeled after Jack Fiddler, a famous shaman and witiko killer that died in police custody. As another example, Xavier and Elijah were inspired by World War I heroes Francis Pegahmagabow and John Shiwak, and it is easy to see these men portrayed in the novel’s main characters. Third, the Cree language is used as part of the story, and the title of each chapter named in Cree, helps to unlock a deeper meaning to the stories being told. Fourth, the information about residential schools, while disturbing, is also truthful, and helps to remind the reader of the atrocities that Aboriginal peoples suffered at the hands of both churches and the federal government. In my opinion, it is hard to find novels better-researched than this one.

So yes, I did love this book, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it and teaching it to my students. I feel that this book has a lot to offer to Canadians, whether they be Aboriginal or not. I feel that I will always be returning to this book, like a walk in the woods, and each time I read it again, my perception will shift, and I’ll become a little more aware of everything.


  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Canada; Seventh Impression edition (May 6 2008)
  • Language: English

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