Archive for the ‘Joseph Boyden’ Category

Boyden, Joseph.  Three Day Road. Toronto: Viking, 2005

The author is, according to the jacket “a Canadian of Irish, Scottish, and Metis roots–which makes him, at best, a quarter aboriginal, but also constitutes a claim to aboriginality, significant in terms of cultural wars in recent years about who has the right to tell native stories.  Legalistically speaking, Boyden shouldn’t have that right, despite the claim to Metis-hood.  But Boyden is clearly aware of the problems, for the novel, as I read it, tends to avoid at least some of the difficulties usually found in novels about aboriginals by Europeans.  It seems on the face of it to be well-researched, and shows a convincing knowledge of Indian life in the north in its time (up to the end of World War I) and the traditional Ojibwa culture.  On the other hand, it does seem to fall into the usual European-writing-about-Aboriginals trap of using an idealized version of aboriginality as a way of attacking the inadequacies and failings of European-based white culture.

But the attack on the inadequate and immoral norms of white life is not mirrored in the structure of the narrative.  Like many other alternating-narrative novels written from within the perspective of aboriginality, this book offers two different aboriginal stories and viewpoints even though the central conflicts in both of the narratives are between the aboriginal and the white lifestyle.  As often in this sort of alternating narrative text (as in, e.g. Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me,  John Smelcer’s The Trap, and Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip, the alternating focalizers are a wise old person and a younger person who learns from the older one.  As often, also, the European enemy remains in the background, unfocalized, as what the main characters have to confront and deal with and try to get past.  A white view of what has happened remains unexpressed, unknown to readers except in terms of the negative (and often, due to cultural clashes or just plain lack of knowledge, uncomprehending) ways in which it strikes the aboriginal characters.  For most contemporary readers, white or aborignal, the novel presents a view distinct from the white Euro-American culture we all know, and shows us that white culture in terms of how it looks from outside.   (And here, with the setting safely in the past, I suspect most readers, white or aboriginal, would be delighted by the attack on residential schools, obsessive Christian missionarizing, the horrors of a pointless war, etc.)

The two focalizing characters are Xavier, a young man who is returning home, severely damaged, from the Great War and his aunt Niska, who has come to pick him up at the train and transport him back home through the wilderness by canoe.  As they make their three day trip upriver, the two alternately remember what has happened in their pasts–so we have two first-person present narratives that focus nevertheless on reminiscences in the past, the aunt, Niska’s, in the past tense and Xavier’s in the present as he relives them now.

Xavier’s memories are internal, for he is in the midst of a morphine-induced haze and hardly communicates to his aunt at all.  So his aunt remains ignorant of what readers learn of his experiences in the trenches.  She, meanwhile, speaks to him of her memories of her own past and then of his with her in his childhood even though she knows he isn’t actually hearing her (although he seems to be getting some of it towards the end).  These are two stories with no audience within the novel; for much of the book, the two main characters remain isolated from each other despite their physical closeness, separated by morphine, by war, by the actions of white men that have disrupted their traditional ways and lives.   There is, nevertheless an insistence that the isolation can be moved beyond–a surprising optimism about the possibility of a happy ending that seems more like children’s literature than what readers might expect in an adult novel about the horrors of war.  Xavier is seriously damaged, physically and mentally, missing a leg, addicted to morphine, and his aunt is an old woman who has spent her life fleeing white culture, living a traditional hunting lifestyle that the inroads of white civilization has made ever more precarious.  But she has a psychic gift that gives her visions of his bad experiences, and a knowledge of the traditional ways that allows her to work at healing him–and at the end apparently, to succeed in her healing.  The three day road is a road to recovery.  There is even a vision of a future for him with a family of his own.

That’s all surprisingly optimistic in the light of the almost obsessive way in which the novel dwells on the horrors of the war in Xavier’s narrative–and also, of life in residential school and in the face of the European devastation of traditional ways in his aunt’s,.  And in both cases, it’s clearly meant to stand as a testimony to the superior truth and wisdom and power of older aboriginal ways.  Aboriginality triumphs over everything European culture has destroyed and attempted to destroy.   While Xavier’s friend Elijah makes a few friends in his regiment, they appear to be ones the help him into addiction and decline, and the novel makes it clear the Xavier’s choice of remaining as separate and as uncontaminated as possible is the wiser one.  Otherwise, there isn’t a positively portrayed white person in the novel, and hardly any, from residential school nuns to Hudson’s Bay clerks to army lieutenants, without massive prejudices against Indians.  I guess I’m cynical enough to have to say that it sounds to me like a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  That’s especially true in the light of my knowledge of the continuing trauma of first nations people in Canada in the hundred years since WWI, and the continuing corruption and corrupting power of white Euro-American culture generally and in relation to aboriginal specifically.  Healing and recovery has not been all that easy and the easily won ending of this novel suggests.

Why are there alternating narratives here (which means, as usual, what can I understand of how they function in the novel, of how the novelist makes use of them to shape his story and make it meaningful)?  The first and most obvious thing is that Niska’s narratives, which tend to be shorter and appear much less frequently than Xavier’s, operate as a kind of relief from the doggedly detailed events Xavier tells of–episode after episode of sniping, killing, stalking, etc., in and out of the trenches of the battlefield.  There’s an almost obsessive-compulsive quality about all this–hundreds of pages of slight variations of the same kind of military action, as Xavier and his friend Elijah stalk and kill countless numbers of German soldiers (Elijah claims 356 at one point, and it feels as if the novel has lovingly reported each and every one), and meanwhile, watch as members of their own battalion graphically lose limbs and spurt blood and die around them.  It’s not just bleak, it is, eventually, kind of boring, the same thing again and again, so much so that it’s a relief to realize as a new chapter begins that it’s Niska this time.  Her tales of trauma in residential school, trauma in the woods, etc., etc., actually seem like brief intrusions of calm and relative sanity in relation to what Xavier has to remember.  Without them his story would, I think, by close to unreadable except by committed lovers and blood and gore and viewing with alarm at the horrors of war.

But beyond that, the alternating narratives are an efficient way of providing all the details of a story in separate bits, their connections unclear and having the effect of a mystery, until they can then come together towards the end, both in terms of plot and in terms of thematic connections, for the two narratives clearly have symbolic resonances in relation to each other).

In terms of plot, first, it takes a long time for the novel to make the connections that explain what Niska and Xavier have meant to each other in the past and how they’re related in the present, a long time for it to become clear how Elijah has played a part in their lives, a long time for the chronological ordering of events and their subsequent cause and effect relationship to each other to become clear.   There are also questions about matters like why the army tells Niska that it’s Elijah who is returning when it is actually Xavier, and why Niska’s attempt at sending a letter to Xavier has had its negative effects once it gets overseas.  By providing information in one narrative that explains and accounts for events in the other,  the novel offers the pleasures of mysteries created and then, eventually, solved.

One of those mysteries is the significance of Niska’s story of how her father has to deal with a woman crazed by hunger who has allowed the windigo, spirit of anarchy, to enter her and ended up eating from the corpse of her husband.  family.  Later, Niska having inherited her father’s skills as a person connected with spirits, must similarly deal with a windigo-crazed person, and we learn that Xavier has watched her do it.  In Niska’s father’s case, his freeing of the woman from the windigo is interpreted by the white authorities as an act of murdering her, and leads to his imprisonment and death.  Later, in Xavier’s narratives, he becomes increasingly convinced that Elijah has been maddened, by war and by his lifelong encounter with and absorption into white values.  His final encounter with his friend is his freeing of him from the spirit of the windigo, an act explained in terms of what it has meant in the other narrative for Niska.

Furthermore, the meaning attached to the windigo in traditional culture as understood by Niska then come to operate as symbolic explanations for what happens to Elijah.  His story becomes an extended variation of the windigo events of the other narrative, and so the windigo, spirit of madness and anarchy, come to stand for the dangerous intrusiveness of European culture into aboriginal life, the dangerous anarchy of giving in to the bloodlust of European warfare, etc.–and in return the madness and anarchy of war come to be equivalent  to the effects of whites on aborginals in Niska’s narrative–the ill effects of residential school, the way in which European culture eats up aboriginals, etc.  Elijah’s story is of a madness that seems to begin in his acceptance of what the residentiual school and army has taught him, a use of his skills as a hunter that goes beyond aboriginal sanity; and meanwhile, Xavier stands back, does his part but tries desperately to resist being tainted and maddened as has his aunt throughout her life.   The novel’s richest meanings (and most subtle propaganda) emerge from the interconnecitons between its two narratives.

An afterthought added later after I’ve read through what I wrote here:  it’s interesting that both Xavier’s story and Niska’s show them both as conscious isolates–those who choose to stand back lest they be destroyed by the evil surrounding them, the war in one case and white society in the other.  So that’s another thematically signficant act of variational counterpointing.