Linking Cree hunting stories with World War I frontline accounts would seem an odd undertaking, to say the least. The wild Canadian North with its harsh yet beautiful landscape and tough living conditions for those surviving off the land is a far cry – physically and spiritually – from the trenches and the killing fields of Ypres and the Somme. Yet, Boyden has successfully merged these seemingly disparate themes through his telling of the life stories of the three protagonists: Xavier, Elijah and Niska. The two young friends, looking for adventure, joined the war effort while Niska carries on her life as the last Oji-Cree medicine woman. The story is told from different perspectives, moving backwards and forwards in time. The outcome is an engrossing narrative that interweaves the disturbing description of WWI horrors in the trenches with the rich and multifaceted recollections of the protagonists' lives and their emotions and experiences of the past.
"Taking the Three Day Road", the traditional Cree reference to dying, takes on new meaning here, both literally and spiritually. The journey home in Niska's canoe through the lush forests and on the winding river provides the backdrop to her efforts to bring one of the friends home, physically and mentally deeply wounded. Her personal recollections and stories of their past lives are set against the nightmarish dreaming of the returning soldier. Will Niska be able to soothe the mind, will the medicine be strong enough to heal him from the agony of war?
The two young Cree started out with eagerness to fight in the war, having honed their tracking and shooting skills in the bush killing animals for food and ceremony. Their very different characters emerge clearly as they leave the familiar territory. As they began their journey, their friendship helped them to complement each others strength to get through numerous challenges, such as the language barrier, their inexperience in urban and barrack life, the discrimination facing them. As their talent as trackers and snipers are increasingly recognized by their superiors, despite their prejudice against Indians, the two are sent on increasingly daring missions. Their reputation grows as they take out more enemy snipers than anybody else. Xavier and Elijah respond very differently to the pressure and violence. One hates his role on the killing fields and is retreating into himself, the other is thriving on the experience and the attention he garners. Their friendship is seriously tested and the tension between them reaches breaking point. How can they salvage the friendship that they had? How can they survive in the hell of the trenches? How do they cope with loosing their comrades and being wounded themselves? Will they be able to reconcile the upbringing on the land, guided by Niska, with the brutality of their war experiences?
Boyden is an outstanding story teller and his skill of creating realistic and lively personalities is admirable. This not only applies to the three protagonists, but also to several of their comrades and their superiors. Boyden establishes a wide-ranging portrait of the people and the extreme conditions they were exposed to during this war. It is evident that that author undertook extensive research into the intricate details of WWI war fare. It can easily stand among the best of its kind. The author adds additional depth through Niska's story, connecting the reader intimately to Cree culture and mythology. Niska's voice stays with you for a long time. Despite the topic, this is a beautifully written, memorable book. [Friederike Knabe]