Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden

Clash of cultures, clash of arms
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The Independent Culture

The vogue for novels exploring the mud and guts of the First World War has recently taken on a deeper complexity. Among this new crop is a first novel by Canadian Joseph Boyden, whose warriors are two Cree boys from Moose Factory in northern Ontario. They find and lose themselves in the turbulence of European war. So far from home and in such an alien environment, they prove to be effective killers but are nearly destroyed in the process.

Elijah Whiskeyjack, an orphan, and his friend Xavier Bird were raised by Bird's aunt, Niska, a traditional healer and hunter. They use the skills she taught them in the bush to become killers on the battlefield. But as Elijah, an expert sniper with little English, chalks up a record-breaking number of deaths, he becomes a man obsessed. As he tells Xavier, "I found the one thing I am truly talented at and that is killing men".

Back at home, over-hunting has forced Canada's aboriginal people onto reserves where the government forces their children into residential schools. Their ties with the land and skills as hunters are lost as they face poverty, starvation and dependence. Boyden's warriors are a sharp illustration of the Indians' attempt to regain their power and shape a new identity.

This unconscious goal is doomed to failure. Boyden draws on a Cree myth about the windigo ­ a man or woman who resorts to cannibalism and is driven mad ­ as a searing metaphor for the Indian's place in the war. Elijah crosses the line from hunter to hunted, his thirst for blood driving him into ever more precarious situations. He collects medals while Xavier fears for his friend's sanity.

The war scenes are narrated as Xavier's memories, back home in Ontario. There is a sharp poignancy about the Native men's dilemma, caught between cultures and used by political powers that will ignore their achievements. This is also a deeply ambitious project, and at times the language jars as it moves between a Victorian formality and contemporary jocularity. So when the men arrive at training camp, Xavier recalls "a huge place of stone and glass called Toronto", while he later comments on a sniper's ability "to hit a man through with neck with such a short window of opportunity".

There are also lyrical moments which possess an eerie power ­ especially where Boyden writes about the northern landscape and the human relationship to it. He has illuminated a forgotten corner of the Great War and that, in itself, is a prodigious achievement.