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Three Day Road

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Three Day Road, first editionFirst edition
Joseph Boyden
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First book publication
2005, Canada

Literature form

Literary, historical fiction

Writing language

Author's country

approx. 130,000 words

The road to recovering oneself

Joseph Boyden's debut novel, Three Day Road, was a revelation for many when it was published to acclaim in 2005.

It was a revelation in the first place, of course, for depicting in such exacting and grisly detail the story of two young Cree hunters fighting in the First World War—a revelation at least for those who had not been exposed to earlier accounts of such Indigenous exploits.

Even for those familiar with such stories, Boyden's depth of research and his pure writing skill recreate the Indigenous experience in new ways. The narrative is concerned not so much with exposing colonialism and racism—though this is a vital part of the story and the background for all that transpires—but with the conflicts within the hearts and minds of the two Cree soldiers.

For all the allegations against Boyden a decade after Three Day Road came out—for falsely claiming to be partly Indigenous himself—there has been little if any dispute over the accuracy of his depictions of the native people's lives in his first novel. Nor has the drawing of the characters' mental lives struck anyone as misguided.

Whatever his own heritage, the author has called upon his own investigative and literary skills to create a credible, engaging narrative with credible, intriguing characters from times and situations distant from his own, as great historical fiction writers always have.

Hunting for survival

The story is related in two voices: Xavier, one of the Cree boys, and his bush-dwelling aunt Niska. Their stories are told piecemeal and out of order—a post-modern trend, which can be annoying—but Boyden is careful to keep them reader-friendly. The narrative flows smoothly and naturalistically, despite some of the shocks along the way.

The plot begins in the early twentieth-century in the wilds of Northern Ontario. Xavier escapes from a residential school and his friend Elijah later gets away from the school that tried to kill the Indian in them. In turn they join Niska in the woods where they learn to hunt for survival. The skills they learn are also of use after they join the Canadian forces and become valued snipers in the European war.

But the nightmare of trench warfare, their place as Indians, and their success as killers of the enemy take severe tolls on the boys. Elijah is especially affected, the implication being that this is due to his having spent more of his childhood in the residential school.

Only one of them—wounded, traumatized and addicted—makes it back from the war to Niska's care.

Niska's healing consists largely of telling stories of her own life and people, which make up a large part of Three Day Road.

Storytelling is something Boyden is equally talented at. His prose is unpretentious, not noticeably pretty or profound but with a punch that sneaks up on you. Never lecturing or berating but consistently making its quiet points, building slowly to his story's emotional impacts.

— Eric


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