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Three Day Road

Three Day Road

4.7 18
by Joseph Boyden

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Set in Canada and the battlefields of France and Belgium, Three-Day Road is a mesmerizing novel told through the eyes of Niska—a Canadian Oji-Cree woman living off the land who is the last of a line of healers and diviners—and her nephew Xavier.

At the urging of his friend Elijah, a Cree boy raised in reserve schools, Xavier joins the war effort.


Set in Canada and the battlefields of France and Belgium, Three-Day Road is a mesmerizing novel told through the eyes of Niska—a Canadian Oji-Cree woman living off the land who is the last of a line of healers and diviners—and her nephew Xavier.

At the urging of his friend Elijah, a Cree boy raised in reserve schools, Xavier joins the war effort. Shipped off to Europe when they are nineteen, the boys are marginalized from the Canadian soldiers not only by their native appearance but also by the fine marksmanship that years of hunting in the bush has taught them. Both become snipers renowned for their uncanny accuracy. But while Xavier struggles to understand the purpose of the war and to come to terms with his conscience for the many lives he has ended, Elijah becomes obsessed with killing, taking great risks to become the most accomplished sniper in the army. Eventually the harrowing and bloody truth of war takes its toll on the two friends in different, profound ways. Intertwined with this account is the story of Niska, who herself has borne witness to a lifetime of death—the death of her people.

In part inspired by the legend of Francis Pegahmagabow, the great Indian sniper of World War I, Three-Day Road is an impeccably researched and beautifully written story that offers a searing reminder about the cost of war.

Editorial Reviews

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Three Day Road is the haunting story of two young Cree Indians who become infantry snipers in World War I. Expert hunters, the childhood friends quickly demonstrate their superior marksmanship, but the harrowing realities of war take a terrifying toll. Boyden's novel is narrated by two Canadian Indians: Xavier, one of the two snipers, and his aunt, Niska, the last of her people to live off the land.

The "three day road" of the title refers to the Indian journey to death. Niska's journey is as a witness to the death of her people, bending in defeat to the inevitable future. Xavier's journey -- from the snowy Canadian wilderness to the battlefields of Europe -- takes him deeper into a horrifying truth. As readers travel with them, Boyden expertly weaves the two stories into a spellbinding portrait of war and the end of a way of life. Startling descriptions ambush the reader with the authenticity of a firsthand account: readers smell the burnt earth, hear the whizzing shells, feel the splash of canoe paddles -- and the sadness that "collects…as rain in trenches." We see the battle through the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle scope and observe the landscape through the eyes of a hunter. But as every hunter knows, "what you hunt hunts you as well." Ultimately, the two friends must face down the enemy -- not in the trenches but in themselves. (Summer 2005 Selection)
Library Journal
In 1916, two Cree Indians enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and are sent to the western front as sharpshooters: Xavier spots, and Elijah shoots. Elijah becomes addicted to the fame that attends their efforts, taking ever-greater risks to increase his "kills" and carrying a bag of scalps around with him as proof of his success. Xavier, meanwhile, watches as his childhood friend slips into madness. In the end, only Xavier returns from battle, though broken in body and spirit. In straightforward, concrete prose, first novelist Boyden evokes a ghastly poetry of death: "small red flowers bloom around dead soldiers and their rifles cover[ing] up the horror before the flowers are pounded into black slime by artillery." This is an exceptional tale of hell barely survived during World War I. Enthusiastically recommended for public libraries.-David Keymer, Modesto, CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Two Cree Indians from eastern Canada experience WWI trench warfare in Canadian Boyden's first novel (following his story collection, Born with a Tooth, 2001). Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, so-called bush Indians who live in the woods, have been friends since childhood. Xavier learned his hunting skills from his auntie, Niska, and he in turn taught Elijah, who was schooled by nuns and speaks far better English than Xavier. The war is over when the story opens and a fever-stricken Xavier, sustained only by morphine, is coming home to Niska. It then alternates between Xavier's last days, his and Niska's recollections of the past (Niska is a diviner and windigo, or cannibal, killer), and scenes of the European battlefield, which get pride of place. What prompted the Crees to enlist is unclear (a curious omission), but Niska blessed them with the wisdom of the ages: "You must do what you must do." Boyden's rendering of the war is both faithful and wrong-headed. As to its faithfulness, it doesn't deviate from the standard accounts of trench warfare, so that here are the Canadian lines, while a few yards away is Fritz (aka the Hun, the Bosch). There are endless trench raids as snipers fire from nests and big guns roar. There is discomfort (lice, trench foot), there is horror, and there is morphine. The quiet Xavier and the flamboyant, garrulous Elijah are just two more privates sucked into this hellhole. They're superb marksmen, and, as a sniper, Elijah racks up an astonishing 356 kills as he becomes a morphine addict and walks a fine line between heroism and homicide (a standard-case history). As for the wrong-headedness, it lies in Boyden's lack of awareness that his oft-told tale leansnow toward the numbing rather than the revelatory. What might have been a punchy novella, linking the Cree windigo killer phenomenon to the killing fields of Europe, has been inflated to a size that obscures what might have been its uniqueness.
From the Publisher
"A beautifully written and haunting story of survival and innocence shattered, of friendship, death, redemption and love of the land." —Isabel Allende

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Penguin Publishing Group
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18 Years

Read an Excerpt


For many days I've hidden in the bush by the town, coming out when I hear the call, watching carefully for him. This is an ugly town, far bigger than Moose Factory, even. This is a town I have not been to before, a place to which I will never return. More wemistikoshiw than I want to see walk the dusty streets in their funny clothes, dressed as if for colder weather, though the sun above us is high and full of summer heat.

I hide well during the day, but when the sound of it reaches my ears I have no choice but to come out and walk among them. They stare and point and talk about me as if they've not seen one of me before. I must look a thin and wild old woman to them, an Indian animal straight out of the bush. Soon I will have only enough food left to get us home, and so I've taken to setting snares around my camp. The rabbits, though, seem as afraid of this place as I am.

Where it comes to rest is just a wooden platform with a small shelter to hide in when the weather turns. The road that leads up to it is covered in dust. Automobiles, just like the one Old Man Ferguson back in Moose Factory drives, rush there at the same time every other day. I have watched them pour what smells like lantern oil onto the road, but still the dust floats up so that it coats the inside of my nose and bothers my eyes. At least I can hide a little in the dust, and not so many of them can see me.

The place where I go is covered in soot so that I feel the need to bathe each day that I return from there without him. I have stopped sleeping at night, worried that the words were wrong, that he will never come, that I will die here waiting.

Again today I hear the call. Again today I wait for the others to get there before me, before I step among them.

The old ones call it the iron toboggan. As I watch this thing approach, whistle blowing and smoke pouring from the chimney in the summer heat, I see nothing of the toboggan in it. More frightening than the crowd of people around me is the one bright eye shining in the sunlight and the iron nose that sniffs the track.

Too many people. I've never been around so many wemistikoshiw at one time. They walk and jostle and talk and shout to one another. I look out at the spruce across the tracks. Blackened by soot, they bend in defeat.

I stand back in the shadow of the shelter and watch as the people in front of me tense, then move closer to the track as it approaches, not further away as I would have expected. The women in the crowd look nothing like me, wear long dresses made of too much material and big hats. They hold bowed cloth shields above their heads. The men are dressed in black and brown and grey suits, and the shoes upon their feet are shiny, so shiny that I wonder what kind of animal the leather has come from. All of the men wear hats, too. All these people wearing hats in summer. I do not understand much of the wemistikoshiw.

It whistles like a giant eagle screaming, so close now that I must cover my ears.

I have paddled by myself against the big river's current for many days to get here. No mind. My one living relation died in a faraway place, and I am here to greet his friend Elijah. Elijah Whiskeyjack is as close to a relation as I still have, and I will paddle him home.

Joseph Netmaker brought the letter out to me. Winter had just started to settle itself into the country. Joseph walked on snowshoes from the town. "This is for you, Niska," he said. "It is from the Canadian boss, their hookimaw."

As soon as I saw the brown letter, the English words written upon it, I knew what it contained. I sat down beside the fire and stirred at it with a stick while Joseph read, first out loud and in his stumbling English, then for me in our language.

"'Serial No. 6711. Deeply regret to inform you, Private First Class Xavier Bird, infantry, officially reported died of wounds in the field, November 3, 1918. Director of Records.' "

I waited for more, but that was all. When Joseph left, I was alone.

Many moons later, when the winter ice was leaving and travel was difficult, Joseph came back with another letter. He explained that it was in reference to Elijah, and that Old Man Ferguson had given it to him to give to me since I was the closest thing to a relation that Elijah had.

The letter said that Elijah had been wounded, that he had only one leg now, that he had tried to rescue another soldier, was given a medal for bravery. It said that although weak, he had healed enough to travel and was expected to arrive in the same town from which he and Xavier had left so long ago.

I had Joseph explain to me how the wemistikoshiw calendar worked, what month I was to be there, and I made careful preparations to journey by canoe to that town where Elijah would arrive. I left early in the summer and paddled up the river. It was difficult. I am older now, but I travelled light. Joseph had asked to come along, but I told him no.

I went alone.

I watch the beast pull up and give one last great sigh, as if it is very tired from the long journey, smoke pouring from its sides. People wave from the windows and people on the ground wave back, just as I have watched them do for days. Then men and women and children who have arrived start stepping down into the arms of others. I see a few soldiers and search among them for Elijah's face with his sly grin. The crowd begins to thin, and once again I do not see an Indian soldier with one leg.

I am turning to leave when I see through one of the windows the silhouette of a man inside. He walks slowly along the aisle, on crutches, in a uniform, a small bag slung over his shoulder. I step away from the shadow of the wall.

He wears a hat, just like the wemistikoshiw do, but this one is of their army and I cannot see his face for his looking down as he slowly makes his way down the steps on his crutches. He is an old man, I think. So skinny. This cannot be the Elijah I know. One leg of his pants is pinned up and hangs down a little way, empty.

When he is off the steps I begin to back away, thinking it is not him. He looks up and I see his face, thin and pale, high cheekbones, and ears sticking out from beneath his hat. I stumble a little, the blood rushing away from my head. The ghost of my nephew Xavier looks at me.

He sees me at the same moment, and I watch as his eyes take a long time to register what they see, but when they do he begins to rock back and forth on his crutches. He falls to the ground. I rush up to him, kneel beside him, grab his warm hands. He is no ghost. I hold him to me. His heart beats weakly. I am struck suddenly that he is very ill.

"Nephew," I whisper. "You are home. You are home."

I hug him, and when he opens his eyes, I look into them. They are glassy. Even in the shadows of the station his pupils are pinpricks.

"I was told you were dead, Auntie," he whispers.

"And I was told you were, too," I say.

We sit on the ground for a while, both of us too weak for the moment to get up. We are crying, looking at one another. A small group of wemistikoshiw gathers and stares at us. I help Nephew up so that we can get away, get to the river where he can drink water and I can better protect him.

We do not stay in the town long. It makes me too nervous. Automobiles, they are everywhere. We must cross the dusty road that they travel upon before we can get to the river where I keep my canoe. Nephew walks slowly on his crutches, his eyes cast down. People stare at us, at him. There was a time before he left that he would have stared back, he and Elijah both, not intimidated by them.

What of Elijah? If they made a mistake about Nephew's death, maybe they made one about Elijah. I want to ask, but will wait until he is ready to speak.

We try to cross the road but an automobile honks like a goose and swerves around. I watch carefully and must wait a long time until I can judge that we can cross safely.

I lead Nephew down to the riverbank. I have left the canoe a good walk down the rocky shore. I tell him that it is best for him to wait while I go ahead and get it. He doesn't respond, just sits heavily on the bank. Quickly as I can, I make my way. I am silly to worry about leaving him alone for a few minutes. In the last years he has experienced more danger than anyone should experience in a hundred lives. But I worry anyway.

As I approach him in my canoe, I can see that he has his jacket off and is holding his thin arm in one hand. I get closer and see that he has stuck something into his arm, something he pulls out just as he looks up and sees me. His body has gone relaxed and his eyes look guilty for a moment, but as I get to where he is they are like the dark river in the sun.

I feel better once he is in the canoe and we are paddling away from the town. It smells the same as Moose Factory, the scent of burning wood not quite masking another decaying smell below it. He paddles for a while, but he is listless.

I tell Xavier to lie back on his pack and rest, that we are heading north and I have the current with me for once and it is easy going. He does not seem to hear me. I touch my paddle tip to his shoulder. He turns. I say it again and he watches my mouth intently. He lies back without speaking, and I paddle us back into the bush, looking every once in a while at his thin face in the sunlight, this face that has grown old too quickly. He sleeps, but his sleep is not restful. He twitches and his hands shake. He calls out and this wakes him up. He sits and dips his hand in the river, runs it across his face. His shirt is soaked through with sweat. He is very sick. Some fever is burning him up from the inside. I push down the river in silence.

I take my time, find it pleasant not to have to work constantly, not to fight the current. Only a couple of days ago I battled with every stroke until my arms were dead things and my lower back felt broken. Now paddling home I have the luxury of the current that runs north with me to the Great Salt Bay, to the place the ones who took my nephew call Hudson Bay. It cost me a week of hard work to make my way up the river, but with the wind and weather in my favour, the river is a three-day paddle home. I have many questions for Xavier, and I am like a child inside, waiting to ask them. But I am patient. I am good at waiting.

We do not get far before the sun lets me know that it is time to prepare a camp. I want to go easy with him anyway. No rush. It is summer.

The insects are heaviest just before and during dusk, and so I look for an island in the river that will afford us some relief from them. Ahead, a good one appears with a sandy beach and dead wood scattered about for a fire.

We beach the canoe and I busy myself collecting wood. Nephew tries to help but his crutches sink into the soft sand and he grows frustrated. I want to cry, watching him from the corner of my eye as he bends and tries to pick up wood and then finally sits and pulls rocks to him slowly, making a fire circle.

I cut long saplings with my axe and drag them to him, tie them together at one end and construct the frame for a small teepee. I pull a length of canvas from the canoe and tie it to the frame. The sky right now looks like it will give a starry night, but the wind tells me something different. We are not so far away from the bay that a storm can't rush up on us. Once I have dragged our few belongings into the teepee, I pull food from a pack and lay it out. Nephew has gotten a nice fire started.

On one rock I place salted fish, on another some moosemeat and on a third, blueberries picked fresh from the bush. I take a stick and sharpen its end. Nephew stares at the river. I lace a length of meat onto the stick and heat it by the flame. He turns his head in recognition when it begins to warm and its scent comes up.

"I have not smelled that in a long time," he says, smiling shyly. These are the first words he has said since the town.

I give him some food, but he doesn't eat. His skin is the colour of cedar ash in the setting sun.

That night I crawl into the teepee, tell him to sleep when he is ready. He stares at the fire.

Hours later, I awake to a light rain tapping on the canvas. I open my eyes and listen to it. The fire smoke in the rain is a pleasant scent. I realize I lie here alone. Even with the weather, Nephew has not come in. I peer outside. The fire sizzles and pops, and my fear returns when I see he doesn't sit beside it.

There is no sleep the remainder of the night. I toss in my blanket. My body hums with Nephew's pain and with the realization that he has come home only to die.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A beautifully written and haunting story of survival and innocence shattered, of friendship, death, redemption and love of the land." —Isabel Allende

Rick Bass
"Three Day Road is a compelling read, beautifully told, and timeless in its lessons."

Meet the Author

Joseph Boyden is a Canadian of Irish, Scottish, and Metis roots. He divides his time between northern Ontario and Louisiana, where he teaches writing at the University of New Orleans.

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Three Day Road 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
PrincessIzzy More than 1 year ago
This is not a book that I would normally read. It's more of a "man" book, but Boyden took me to the ugliness of war as gently as could be done. Maybe because he wove redemption into the fiber of the story, I was able to read it through till the end. Not only did he take me to war, but he also gave me a glimpse of something I would never see as a caucasion; the plight of Native tribes of people on this continent as they were absorbed into "civilized" life. Everyone should read this book. We all need the education.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An amazing first novel. It absolutely blew me away. I can't stop talking or thinking about it. Beautiful, heart-breaking, moving: it is all of this and more. It's got love, combat, wonderful writing: everything you could want in a novel. Please, read it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An amazing novel taking two young Native Canadian Americans to the hell of World War I and following the changes to each of them, but also interwoven with their fascinating previous life in the wilds of Canada... I would have never envisioned such a combination but Boyden handles it masterfully. Fascinating history on two very different fronts. Beautifully written.
aruba1 More than 1 year ago
great book , loved the charactors.well worth a reread
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
WOW loved it!!! Thanks to the ad on the side and contest, I actually read this and Let me tell you it was beautiful, heart-breaking and really moving.
RodRaglin More than 1 year ago
Three Day Road a memorable story that will haunt, inspire and entertain. Niska is a traditional medicine woman, a mix of Cree and Ojibway. She's been taught divining and traditional medicine by her mother and father, has seizures and sees visions. She's also the destroyer of windigo, an evil presence that sometimes takes possession of humans, a role she has inherited through the generations. Niska is a "bush Indian", living alone in the wilderness of northern Ontario. She is coming by canoe to a small town to meet Xavier, her nephew and last remaining relative. She raised him in the traditional ways until WW I broke out and he and his friend Elijah enlisted in the Canadian Army and were sent to France. Xavier and Elijah have used their hunting skills to become an outstanding snipers. In France they hunted men instead of game. It changed them. Xavier arrives home a deeply troubled young man, his leg has been amputated at the knee, he's addicted to the painkiller morphine. Niska meets him and so begins their journey back into the wilderness, back to sanity, back to healing. Author Joseph Boyden uses these two main characters to tell the story. Xavier floats on a morphine high and remembers the trenches, the bombardments, the death of comrades, the calculated killing of the enemy one by one as a sniper. In an effort to draw him out of his personal hell Niska talks to him of her early life, of her parents, of how she came to raise him, of the windigo. Three Day Road is a moving story of love and sacrifice, of friendship and loyalty, of the horror of war and the pointlessness of it. Immaculately researched, powerfully written, this is a story that will haunt, inspire, entertain and stay with you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not finished with the book. I noticed this nook format is missing pg. 128/337- the last page of a chapter. Please fix this error. I will post review after I finish.
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Tigerpaw70 More than 1 year ago
This story is of Xavier Bird and Elijah Weesageechak also known as Whiskeyjack, two James Bay Cree, who signed up together and became famous snipers in the Canadian Army during the First World War. The novel is a poignant tale of brutality and survival. It opens with Xavier returning home, missing a leg and addicted to morphine, his days are also numbered. His aunt Niska greets him at the train station and together they begin a three day canoe journey home. On their travel, Niska recounts stories of their youth and in return Xavier graphically recounts the horrors he and his friend Elijah faced. Boyden's detailed and colourful writing immerses his reader into two contrasting worlds. Niska's is rich in native culture and harmony with nature, the other, Xavier plunges the reader into the atrocities of war. Both are driven by the will to survive. In addition to the central characters the story is stocked with many other memorable and wonderful secondary players. Xavier and Elijah's characters and some of their exploits are modeled after the real life experiences of Francis Pegahmagabow (known as Peggy) an Ojibway Indian, an honoured sniper of WW1. The pace of the story is steady and holds ones attention firmly, it is highly captivating and a page turner one hard to put down. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wasn't sure I would like this book, but it was a very good read. It was a haunting story that lingered with me everytime I put it down. I also liked how it was structured to give different perspectives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a difficult book to describe. It is an entertwining narrative from a traditional live off the land Cree woman, her World War I trench fighting soldier nephew, and the growth and disintegration of themselves and the people around them. What sets this book apart other than its unique approach to the subject is the wonderful style and literate presentation of the author. Indians mean the west, but that doesn't apply here. War adventures imply heroic deeds and yet it is the defects of the characters which are most pronounced. Yet you are drawn into their lives, their observations, their acts, as if you inhabit their bodies and souls. Mr. Boyden has woven a masterful tale filled with angst, hope, sadness, sprituality and love. This was a great journey.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read many war novels and this is one of the best. The author has conveyed the absolute horror, suffering, and futility of warfare better than any other I have read. I could really imagine the horrific sights, stinking smells and shaking ground. But more than anything, I could understand how war can slowly but surely transform normal human beings into something else. Something terrible. How anyone could survive experiences like these and make sense out of everyday living again is a miracle.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well written, powerful story of characters you take to your heart & who stay with you long after you finished. Hard to put down this gory but sensitive novel. You will long remember the highly credible scenarios of a grim European war and may also recall the drop-dead beauty of the pristine Canadian wilderness, but it is the storytellers who will walk with you. This is a haunting tale, and, utimately, a very satisfying read. I am reminded of Hemingway --had Hemingway been more mature. Hope Boyden has more books in him.
harstan More than 1 year ago
World War I is over and a dying Xavier is coming home to Eastern Canada to live his last days with his beloved Auntie Niska. Morphine is the only thing that keeps the pain at bay. When he is not over-drugged he and Niska recall his childhood when she taught him how to hunt and Xavier taught his best friend and fellow vet Elijah Whiskeyjack how to hunt too. Niska wonders if her blessing the two lads enlisting in the European war was a mistake.............. .. The trench warfare is horrendous as just a few yards away Fritz the enemy fires at the Canadians and visa versa. The conditions are terrible between the lice, lack of clean water, food rationing, and wet socks leading to trench foot when frost bite does not set in. Only morphine makes conditions palpable. Xavier and Elijah become snipers although that does not improve their conditions in hell while Elijah racks up an astounding kill rate as though he depends on morphine to numb the senses except his marksman eyes.................. THREE DAY ROAD is an intriguing look at the effects of the trench warfare during World War I on Canadian Indians, who volunteered to serve. However, the story line graphically concentrates more on the atrocities and the aftermath of the war (the killing fever that Xavier suffers from, and the morphine addiction and killing frenzy that engulfs Elijah, etc.) that could have hit anyone who served On The Western Front. Though Joseph Croyden provides a deep look at the horrors of war just not enough on the impact on the Indians who fought a white man¿s war nor their tribe once they came home..................... Harriet Klausner