Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

How to tell if your best friend's gone Windigo
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The Independent Culture

In Niska's bloodline runs a gift of supernatural discernment. Like her father before her, she can read the bones of a moose as augury. And like her father she can kill the Windigo, the monster of Canadian folklore born when a lonely tracker is forced to eat human flesh. When the Canadian authorities arrest her father for the slaying of a woman, Niska understands that his mantle has passed to her.

As she feeds Xavier her tales, he dreams feverishly of his time in the war. Elijah was Xavier's apprentice. In the trenches he becomes the teacher, or at least, the senior partner, picking off the soldiers that Xavier spots for him. But as the war progresses, Xavier cannot evade the knowledge that his friend, protégé and protector has taken to war with a more than human blood-lust.

Perhaps the most startling success of this book is the way it combines a tale of racial and cultural displacement with a mystic saga. The Windigo, symbol of despair, prowls through these pages. His icy bite is as terrible in the trenches as in the woody wastes of Canada. By the end it becomes clear that even the gentle, sensitive Xavier has gone Windigo in his own way, too, as morphine pours dreams into the cauldron of his memory. He wonders what has become of Elijah - though he knows full well.

From a teacher of creative writing one would expect a work of more textbook slickness: from the first page the reader feels the draw of a giggle at the faux-naïf style, the cumbersome cadences. But style is only a chrysalis: if it hatches a tale, then it has done its job. Boyden's prose may lurch from self-conscious simplicity to jarring colloquialism, but he guides us through immensely complex stories with subtlety and grace.