Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

I was intrigued by Jospeh Boyden’s Three Day Road when it was first released but never ending up reading it. When I recently stumbled upon it in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble I decided to rectify my mistake. I am glad I did. It is a powerful novel about the horrors of war, the complex loyalties and emotions of friendship, and the bonds of family.

The story follows Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, Cree Indians who enlist in the Canadian army and are sent to fight in the trenches of Belgium and France during World War I. Xavier has returned from the war having lost a leg and become addicted to morphine. His aunt picks him up at the train depot and they are traveling by canoe back to the her home in the bush. As they float down the river Xavier reflects on his war experiences and Niska tells her nephew her own history to fill the silence.

Niska raised Xavier after his mother succumbed to alcohol and trained him from a very young age in the old ways. He became a highly skilled hunter and tracker. Seeking companionship Xavier become friends with another boy at the orphanage named Elijah and the younger boy eventually joins the family in the bush. Xavier mentors Elijah and the younger boy learns to hunt as almost as well as his older friend.

Unlike Xavier who was never fully immersed in the English of the town’s Catholic school, Elijah has a knack for language and is as nimble with words as he is on the hunt. Elijah also has a strong desire for adventure and looks to make a name for himself. It is largely this passion that leads to their enlistment in the Army. Believing that the war will be a quick one they hope to experience new things, prove their valor, and return home soon.

Their hunting and tracking skills prove transferable to the rigors of being a soldier and the army puts them to work as scouts and snipers. The war, however, turns out to be anything but quick and the two young men become trapped in the horrors of trench warfare. It is their reaction to this horror that eventually divides them. Xavier and Elijah have a natural and mostly harmless sibling type rivalry as they hunt and trap in the bush, but the stress and tension of war soon exacerbate this rivalry to the breaking point.


Xavier’s trouble with English and his natural reserve keep him from making strong bonds with his fellow soldiers and he feels isolated. Due to never ending explosions he also develops hearing problems, which further isolate him. He turns inward to try and make sense of the madness around him. He longs for the peace and beauty of his home.

Elijah seems to revel in the danger and excitement of war and soon builds a reputation as a fierce warrior and legendary marksmen; despite the fact that Xavier is the better shot. But he pressures and violence soon push him to the edge and beyond. Rather than turn inward he pushes his warrior mentality to the extreme. He lives only to kill and is willing to ignore both the rules of his unit but the small amount of humanity left in war.

The book details the horrors of trench warfare and imagines the madness and confusion that must have been the daily environment. It also explores the unique perspectives of two Cree transplanted to the mud and blood of the Western Front. Elijah’s madness and the tension between the two friends eventually build into a violent climax that ties into the unique history of Niska and her family.

Three Day Road is not for the faint of heart. It is a dark and often violent exploration of war and those trapped fighting it. But it is also a fascinating depiction of the troubled lives of Indians trying to make their way through the modern world; of a way of life that has disappeared. And it is a powerful window into the loyalties and resentments of a friendship pushed to extremes and of the strong bond of love and family to preserve even in the darkest of times.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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