Xavier Bird, a young Ojibwa from the Moose Cree tribe in northern Ontario, returns to Canada from the Europe's Western Front in the summer of 1919. He is alone, in unimaginable pain from an amputated leg, addicted to morphine, and dying from a spirit broken by the nightmare of war.
Carrying him home in her dugout canoe is his aunt Niska, an elderly medicine woman who has lived on her own in the bush since escaping a Catholic boarding school in her teens. Through a twisting, dreamlike journey of words and images we follow Xavier and Niska on a three-day river trail home. The journey takes us through the years of these characters' lives. To distract Xavier from his pain and to quell her own anxiety over his addiction and the emotional wounds that she cannot heal, Niska recounts her childhood as European settlers closed in on her tribe's ancestral territories. She reveals how she survived and thrived on her own, fell in love with a French trapper, learned to use her healing and divining powers, and how she saved Xavier from subjugation at the hands, whips and rum of white settlers.
Xavier crossed the Atlantic as a Canadian Army private with his best friend, Elijah Weesageechak ("Whiskeyjack" to non-Cree speakers). Elijah had spent his early years at a Catholic boarding school and is fluent in English, but ignorant of his tribe's hunting, tracking and survival skills. He is reclaimed by the Cree forest and comes of age with Niska and Xavier. Xavier is a patient teacher and Elijah a crack student. By the time the young men arrive in Europe, their marksmanship skills are renowned. They are selected to train with an elite group of snipers. Xavier is soon overshadowed by Elijah's charisma and ego but the two remain a team during their nearly two years on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Why Xavier returns to his homeland alone becomes the thread of tension that reverberates keenly to the final pages.
This is a beautifully written yet brutal novel. Each modern war has its unique horrors. Three Day Road mires the reader in the muck of World War I trench warfare as bodies pile in corners, lice pulse in clothing seams, and toes rot black with trench foot. Boyden spares no detail of hand-to-hand combat, of the blood-lust that becomes the sole means of emotional survival for some soldiers, of the ache for the relief of morphine. The devastation is so relentless, you understand any soldier's break with reason, you feel their uncontrollable rage and their sense of hopelessness as they accept that each moment may be their last.
It is Boyden's amazing storytelling ability and his skills in pacing and tension that keep the gore from overwhelming the narrative. The characters who ripple through bring life and dimension to the battlefields, farmland, forest and hearths of Europe and Canada. This is historical fiction at its finest: a scholar's command of factual detail balanced by a storyteller's heart and passion. Niska provides us with an historical context, telling the story of northern First Nations in the early part of the 20th century. Xavier's story is the eternal lesson that nothing good comes of war, a lesson we seemed destined to repeat and fail at least once each generation.
I'm glad I waited a few more days to compile my Best Reads of 2011 list. Three Day Road will surely appear in the top ten.