Three Day Road

Joseph Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, made him one of Canada’s most prominent writers of fiction. It won multiple awards and drew attention to an overlooked aspect of Canada’s history, namely the role Indigenous people played in Canada’s military history. Inspired by the story of Anishnaabe First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow, Three Day Road follows a wounded soldier’s journey home. The novel parallels the death that hangs over the battlefields of the First World War with the destruction of traditional Indigenous cultures. The book won the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

Joseph Boyden
Joseph Boyden was a juror for Historica Canada's Aboriginal Arts & Stories contest.
(courtesy Historica Canada)

Background

Boyden graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of New Orleans in 1995. He then worked as a teacher for Northern College in Moosonee, Ontario, until 1997. Through his work and travels around James Bay, he was introduced to the Cree of Mushkegowuk Territory, an area that makes up much of Northern Ontario. He later likened the experience to discovering a “gold mine” of stories. He used the people and setting as the inspiration for Three Day Road and his follow-up novel, Through Black Spruce, as well as for stories in his debut short story collection, Born With a Tooth (2001).

Three Day Road in particular was inspired in part by the life of Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow, who makes a brief appearance in the novel. An Anishnaabe (Ojibwe) sniper credited with 378 kills, Pegahmagabow was Canada’s most highly decorated Indigenous soldier at the end of the First World War. But following his return to Canada, his efforts were largely ignored by wider Canadian society. Pegahmagabow later became a prominent voice in the fight for broader Indigenous rights while serving as a chief and band councillor in the Wasauksing First Nation, where he was born.

Boyden first heard of Pegahmagabow’s exploits from members of the Wasauksing Nation while visiting his family’s cottage near their reserve. Boyden’s interest in military stories was also driven by a family connection: his father, Dr. Raymond Wilfrid Boyden, received the Distinguished Service Order while serving in the Second World War, while Boyden's maternal grandfather and an uncle served in the First World War.


Plot Synopsis

The spectre of death, personal and cultural, hangs over the novel. It takes its title from a story about how those ready for death must walk the “three-day road.” After being badly injured while serving on the Western Front in the First World War, Cree sniper Xavier Bird has returned to Canada a shell of his former self — missing a leg, addicted to morphine and with a fading desire to continue living. Arriving in Moose Factory, he reconnects with his aunt, Niska, and they begin the three-day canoe trip up the river to Niska’s home in Northern Ontario.

As they travel, the novel shifts between their perspectives, as each recalls the story of how they ended up where they are. Xavier’s recollections take the form of morphine-induced dreams and private memories, primarily revolving around his friend Elijah Weesageechak. Xavier recalls how he grew up with Niska in the bush after she rescued him from a residential school, how he helped Elijah escape from another residential school years later and how they went from friends hunting and exploring the forest to soldiers serving in Belgium and France.

Niska, hoping that connecting to his roots will help restore her mostly silent nephew, tells him stories of her time growing up in a traditional Cree community. She explains that she inherited her father’s role as a shaman, having the gift of prophetic vision and charged with the responsibility of killing windigos — the possessed, cannibalistic spirits of people who threaten the tribe. The killing of one such windigo, misunderstood by the White Canadian authorities, led to her father being executed as a murderer and broke up their community. Since then, Niska has lived outside White society, and what little contact she has is usually marred by racism and exclusion.

In flashbacks to the war, Xavier and Elijah find a similar segregation in the trenches, despite the fact that they are expert snipers. Though Xavier struggles to fit in and becomes increasingly disgusted with the war and his role in it, Elijah is both more acclimated to White ways and more comfortable with killing. He seems to relish telling stories about his own exploits as much as the acts themselves. Addicted to morphine, Elijah becomes bolder and more reckless on the battlefield, eventually being prodded into proving his prowess by taking the scalps of enemy soldiers. Horrified by what his friend has become, Xavier attempts to find a way out of the war. As the canoe trip nears its end, he struggles to explain to Niska what happened. 


Reception

Three Day Road drew considerable interest even before it was published. The manuscript was subject to a bidding war and was bought by Penguin Books Canada, which saw the novel as a chance to revitalize its flagging fiction division. In early reviews, several outlets remarked on the extensive marketing campaign the book was afforded.

Initial critical reaction was strongly positive. Quill & Quire, the Canadian publishing industry trade magazine, praised Boyden’s characterizations, calling Xavier, Niska and Elijah “full to the brim with life.” The Globe and Mail suggested Three Day Road could take the place of Timothy Findley’s The Wars as the preeminent Canadian First World War novel. It likened Boyden’s writing to that of Tomson Highway and Homer and ultimately described Three Day Road as “a remarkable achievement, and a breathtaking debut.”

Honours

The novel was nominated for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. It won the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize in 2005, as well as the Amazon First Novel Award and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award in 2006. It was also a finalist in CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2006 and has been credited with renewing interest in the role of Indigenous people in Canada’s military history.

To date, Three Day Road has sold more than 200,000 copies in Canada. It produced an acclaimed sequel, Through Black Spruce, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and helped establish Boyden as one of the country’s pre-eminent authors of fiction. In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presented a copy of the book to United States President Barack Obama as an example of a book that “best exemplifies the country.”


Controversies

In late 2016, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) published an article questioning the legitimacy of Boyden’s claim of Indigenous identity. It cited concerns within the Indigenous community, inconsistencies in his identification with certain nations — Boyden has, at different times, claimed Métis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibwe and Nipmuc ancestry — an inability to verify suggested family ties, and the claims of a deceased uncle who ran an Algonquin Park tourist stand under the name “Injun Joe” but professed to have no Indigenous heritage. Boyden responded with a statement on social media, noting his own past confusion with his identity and his consistent description of himself as having mixed Scottish, Irish and Indigenous heritage. He also cited a previously published quote: “A small part of me is Indigenous, but it is a huge part of who I am.”

The article and Boyden’s response touched off a months-long national debate about Boyden and what constitutes Indigenous identity. Though it revolved largely around the appropriateness of Boyden’s role as a public representative of Canada’s Indigenous community, Three Day Road also drew scrutiny, primarily because of Boyden’s acceptance of the McNally Robinson Award for Aboriginal Book of the Year, which is explicitly for Indigenous authors. Boyden’s claim that the book’s structure was inspired by the importance of circular cycles in Cree and Ojibwe cultures factored into larger discussions about cultural appropriation, as did his telling of a story from outside his own community.

Since being published in 2005, Three Day Road’s inclusion in school curricula and presence in libraries has occasionally been challenged, primarily for its graphic depictions of violence. In 2018, parents in the Lambton Kent District School Board expressed concern that Three Day Road was included in the curriculum of a high school course focused on Indigenous issues, citing the novel’s graphic sexual content.

Awards

  • McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award (2005)
  • Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (2005)
  • Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award (2005)