April 10, 2009

Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden

I read Boyden's Through Black Spruce last year as part of my Giller shortlist read-athon, and then ranked it as the best book that I had read all year.  It was only after I had read it that I learned that it was, in fact, the second book of a planned trilogy, with the first book being titled Three Day Road.  Having lived in "deepest darkest Africa", there is a 3-year gap in my cultural knowledge, and as Three Day Road was published in 2005, I missed it completely.

Three Day Road is similar to Through Black Spruce, in that it is made up of two distinct, intertwined stories, told by two different people - in this case, Xavier Bird who goes over to Europe to fight in WW1, and his aunt Niska who is trying to keep the old way of life alive, in defiance of the white settlers.  Xavier is the father / grandfather to the main characters in Through Black Spruce.

My big revelation came in the first half of the book, and it involved a complete re-working of my concept of Canadian history.  Back in Grade 7 and 8 history class, we learned about the Hudson's Bay Company, and the fur trade, and the Voyageurs.  Here in Thunder Bay, we are right on the old Voyageur route as they headed out west.  But I had never before considered what the original inhabitants of this beautiful land may have thought and felt about these invaders.

To me, it was Niska's story that had the more powerful impact.  She would have been born in the second half of the 19th century, and she experienced an early childhood with a nomadic lifestyle, following the game and truly living off the land.  Then after her father dies, she and her mother and sister end up in Moose Factory living on the reservation.  (I should probably mention that she is epileptic, and becomes a medicine woman and Windigo-killer.)  After a (very) brief and traumatic stay at a residential school, she and her mother return to the bush where she spends most of the rest of her life.  Later in life, she rescues her nephew, Xavier, from that same residential school, and brings him up the way that she was brought up.  But the resentment towards the nuns, the European system, the fur traders, the alcohol, comes across very clearly.

I love it when a book can make me change my perspective so very completely.

On the other hand, I have a friend who says that it was Xavier's first hand telling of trench warfare that made the biggest impression on her.

Early in the book, I started thinking that this was even better than Through Black Spruce, but unfortunately I found that it dragged on a little too long towards the end.  I kept reading eagerly though, as several questions present in the early chapters (Why did Niska think that Xavier was dead, and vice versa?  How did Elijah die?  How did Xavier lose his leg?) that aren't solved until the very end of the book.

I want to go back now and re-read Through Black Spruce (once I get my copy back), and I look forward to the next book.

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