Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review of Three Day Road

Coming off of a disappointing read, I decided to go for Three Day Road, a book that I'd only heard good things about. And it was great. I tried to get my book club to read it, but they were not into "any war books that are depressing." So that definitely ruled this one out. The thing is, I actually expected it to be more dark and depressing than it was. Yes, when your subject matter is World War I and oppressed First Nations people during the first half of the last century, it's not going to be a lighthearted read. But the strength and spirit of the characters really overpowered the dark stuff in a good way so that the book felt really balanced in its depiction of events.

Once again, Boyden uses male and female voices as his narrators throughout the book in alternating chapters. Niska is one of the last Cree Indians in northern Ontario who has not given up the traditional way of living off the land in a nomadic lifestyle. She raises her nephew, Xavier, after rescuing him from residential school when he was five years old (her sister, Xavier's mother, was lost to alcoholism). Niska teaches Xavier the traditional ways of hunting and surviving in the bush, along with her gifts for reading bones and interpreting dreams. Xavier's best friend from residential school is Elijah. Elijah is outgoing and gregarious, with a gift for the English language and an ability to mimic accents. Elijah spends his summers with Niska and Xavier, and they teach him how to hunt and shoot and live in the bush as well. It is Elijah who decides that he and Xavier need to enlist and fight in the war, and they journey and fight in Belgium together for three torturous years.

The book begins with Xavier's return to Ontario after the war, missing a leg and trapped by a morphine addiction. Niska is there to greet him, and both of their stories unfold on the three day canoe paddle back home. We learn of Niska's youth and alienation from other Cree once her father was jailed and killed by Canadians. We learn of her fits of epilepsy and resulting visions that lead her to her nephew so that she can take him away from the residential school. We learn of Xavier's friendship with Elijah, their feats on the battlefield as expert snipers, and why Xavier returns from war and Elijah does not.

Boyden once again did a masterful job of bringing the reader into small-town northern Ontario. The best way to describe his writing is that it is graceful. He is able to bring voices and people to the surface without being cliched or forced, and create incredibly clear images of completely different geographies. The reader is transported from the remote wilderness of northern Ontario in the dead of winter to the depraved and pock-marked mud fields of no-man's-land in the Somme.

Someone told me that Three Day Road was the first book in a trilogy. I hope that they were right, because it means I have one more wonderful story to look forward to.


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