Joseph Boyden travels a Three Day Road to York

On Nov. 30, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author Joseph Boyden. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

The world is a different place in this new century, Nephew. And we are a different people. My visions still come but no one listens any longer to what they tell us, what they warn us. I knew even as a young woman that destruction bred on the horizon… No one is safe in such times, not even the Cree of Mushkegowuk. War touches everyone, and windigos spring from the earth.

from Three Day Road
by Joseph Boyden

On the last day of fall classes at the Canadian Writers in Person series, Christmas became Mardi Gras. Michael Legris of the York Bookstore, who organizes a book-signing table for each reading, has made a holiday ritual of bringing Christmas chocolates for the students and guests. Joseph Boyden, here to read from his acclaimed first novel Three Day Road, decided to blend traditions: “I’ve lived much of my recent life in New Orleans and it’s a tradition there to throw things from the Mardi Gras float.” To the delight of the audience, including a busload of high-school students from Woodstock, Boyden began tossing chocolates into the crowd (his aim is near-perfect).

Right: Joseph Boyden

The light-hearted charm of the author, who grew up in Willowdale, was a counterpoint to the heavier themes of his novel. Three Day Road follows the journey of two Cree Snipers from northern Ontario to the killing fields of the First World War, and eventually home again. Although the book is about war, it is more importantly about the healing power of family. While the central character Xavier Bird recalls the horrors of the trenches, his Aunt Niska tells him stories of their past in an attempt to heal his gravely wounded body and spirit.

As one in a family of 11 with Irish, Scottish and Métis roots, Boyden understands the power of family (his brother, nephews and cousin were in attendance). He was admittedly haunted by the early death of his father, the most decorated Canadian medical officer of the First World War, and initially wrote in that time period. “It was the greatest trauma of my life. I feel that I have always been searching for him, always wondering who he was,” said Boyden.

However, the novel underwent changes as Boyden discovered another theme emerging. He realized that setting his novel during the first great war would also tap into the “quiet dark battle of Natives being placed on reserves and residential schools for the first time”. In the novel, a misunderstood letter symbolizes the many miscommunications between white and First Nation culture, “two races that actually have a lot in common,” said Boyden. The initial chronological structure of the novel also evolved as Boyden rewrote it to reflect the more circular storytelling of First Nation culture.

The naming of characters and their Native/European translations was also important to Boyden. Xavier Bird was named after a First Nation elder the author used to visit in James Bay. Because of language barriers, “we mostly smiled and drank tea together, a great relationship,” remembered Boyden. The character Elijah Whiskeyjack captures the anglicizing of the Native name for the trickster bird “wiss_ka_chon”, much as the character himself becomes anglicized by residential school and the war, caught between cultures. With the name of his other main character, Niska, translating into “goose,” the theme of birds becomes apparent. The author wanted to convey the sense of characters that want to become airborne but are unable to because of their circumstances.

Writing accurately about a war that was almost a century in the past required a lot of research. As a beginning writer and teacher in New Orleans, Boyden didn’t have the funds to do travel research until after the first draft was already written. What he discovered in Europe confirmed the level of detail he had found in his historical research. The landscape, which on the surface looked like Southern Ontario, said Boyden, was also marked with bones, shells and bullets and was a place full of ghosts. Through writing this novel, Boyden was led to the conclusion that “nobody goes through war unscathed.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Andrew Pyper will read from his debut novel, The Wildfire Season on Jan. 11, 2007.