One of Canada’s great unsung heroes was Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibway from the Parry Island (now Wasauksing) band who fought in the First World War. Known under the sobriquet Peggy, he received the Military Medal plus two bars for his work as a deadly sniper, with a “kill count” as high as 378 by some estimates. The stories of his wartime exploits, his appalling treatment at the hands of the Department of Indian Affairs when he returned to Canada, and his politicization and transformation into a respected native leader were briefly told in a 2003 non-fiction book, Pegahmagabow: Legendary Warrior, Forgotten Hero by Adrian Hayes. But a tale like this is also great fodder for historical fiction, and Three-Day Road is the result.
Author Joseph Boyden, who is part native, has taken a sideways step in dealing with the Peggy story. Instead of trying to fictionalize a real hero – always a risky business – he has created a pair of young Cree hunters whose experiences in the First World War are loosely modelled on Pegahmagabow’s.
They are Xavier Bird and Elijah Weesageechak (the latter promptly dubbed Whiskeyjack by the white military), two friends who sign up together and quickly get noticed by the brass and the other enlisted men as the crack shots they are. By imagining two soldiers instead of one, Boyden is able to explore with mesmerizing precision the conflicting desires and motivations that a young “bush Indian” must have felt in the trenches of France and Belgium.
Xavier, the quieter of the two, barely speaks English and has been raised according to traditional native beliefs and customs by his semi-wild aunt Niska, in the bush near Moose Factory in Northern Ontario. It is his muted but compelling narrative voice we hear. His hunting instincts run deep, and so do his aunt’s teachings about animal totems, tricksters, and the dreaded windigos that feed on human flesh and must be eradicated for the good of the tribe.
When he is forced to bury his dead comrades on the battlefield, Xavier makes sure to thank them, in death, “for helping to strengthen the trench line.” Attuned to the constant racism of the military, he simply hopes his prowess at killing Germans will guarantee that no one “can call me a useless bush Indian ever again.”
Elijah has grander and more dangerous dreams. Having been largely acculturated by a residential school upbringing before escaping into the forest to live with Xavier and Niska, he has acquired the dubious skills of public relations and boastfulness as much as the crafts of the hunter. His English, learned from the nuns, is impeccable, and he makes his mark among the men in the trenches as much by the flash of his storytelling as by his murderous midnight prowls in no man’s land.
Gradually Elijah becomes imprisoned by two great obsessions: a need for morphine, whose use is rampant up and down the lines, and an insatiable hunger for killing. Some French soldiers suggest that if he really wants to gain respect for all his kills, he should scalp his victims as evidence. He decides to do so, much to Xavier’s disgust.
In counterpoint to the exploits of Xavier and Elijah, Boyden interweaves the story of Niska, told as she paddles her wounded nephew back home after the war is over. Niska is part of the sad but admirable remnant of traditional natives who refused to enter the reserves in the 19th century, choosing instead to live by their wits and traditional teachings in the woods.
Subject to what modern medicine would call epileptic seizures, Niska is deemed by her tribe to have inherited her father’s skills as a shaman and a windigo-killer. Since windigos manifest themselves in humans who have practiced cannibalism, getting rid of them involves what white society would call murder, and indeed Niska’s father was executed as a murderer by the white courts. The constant crossing of the moral lines between the worldviews of native and white society is one of the many strengths of this fascinating novel.
At one point, hunkered down in his sniper’s nest, Xavier indulges himself (and the reader) in a contemplation on the number three, which he sees as an obsession of his white commanders. There’s the front line, the support line, and the reserve line, for starters. There’s the infantry, the cavalry, and the artillery. Off the battlefield, there’s food, then rest, then women. In church, there’s the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Not to mention the superstition about lighting three cigarettes with one match, a prime metaphor for courting danger in the Great War. But then Xavier suddenly remembers Niska’s traditional teaching, that those who are dying must walk the three-day road to death, and he wonders “if we share something, some magic. Maybe it will help me get through all this.”
The real war hero, Peggy, makes a brief cameo appearance in the novel, which may not have been a wise choice on the author’s part. The characters of Xavier and Niska and, to a slightly lesser extent, Elijah are full to the brim with life – they’re quite satisfying and believable as they are, and need no further stamp of authentication.