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Whistler Reads: THREE DAY ROAD


The Path Gallery, owned by Brit Germann was the perfect location for this month's Whistler Reads (the village book group) discussion of Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. This critically and popularly acclaimed novel is set in both Ontario and the trenches of WWI France where Canadians distinguished themselves in the courageous battle of Vimy Ridge. Three Day Road powerfully evokes this history from a Canadian Native perspective in the same way that Vonnegut's  Slaughterhouse Five has etched in our minds the bombing of Dresden WWII. Horrifying and beautiful, it will resonate with the group for a very long time. Take a look at the discussion of this novel, which is certainly destined to become a Canadian classic.


May 10, 2007

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  • A few short weeks ago in April, the 90th anniversary of Vimy was recognized by Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Harper, relatives of vets and onlookers. Canadian students can recount the mythic proportions of Vimy from their history lessons. And yet, no one prior to Joseph Boyden has drawn attention to the Canadian Native experience, or gone further to immortalize the legendary Ojibwa sniper, Francis Pegamagabow.

    We began the social part of the evening sipping wine recommended from Nesters Wine Shop and browsing the art. Then a call to business had everyone comfortably seated on plush cushions arranged on the raised platforms lining either side of the gallery.   WR Founder and Director, Paula Shackleton began by passing a ceremonial sage smudge

    "Smudging has been used since ancient times by people of pre-Christian traditions including Eastern Orthodox religions, Buddists, Hindu, Catholic, Cherokee and Lakota. Among the plants used for smudge are tobacco, sweetgrass, calamus, red willow bark, red osier dogwood, cedar needles and sage." 

    "Smudging brings an awareness of the sacred and should be performed with sensitivity and respect.  As you add each pinch of the smudge mixture to the shell or pot, offer thanks to the Grandmothers and Grandfathers of each of the four directions. The order of honoring may differ from nation to nation.  Some start with the east, others from the north or east. Always the rotation is sunwise, following the path of the sun (east-south-west-north, for example).  Then to Mother Earth (down), Father Sun (up) and finally to the Great Mystery within all things (brought to your heart)." 

    Where does the title derive?

    The book discussion began with the most obvious question, where does the title derive? It relates both to the length of time the journey takes for Niska and Xavier to canoe home to their village, and it also pertains to the Native expression for the death journey. Page 98 describes the mortally injured German soldier who is languishing in no-man's land between the trenches and barbed wire of the front.

    "We sit in a listening post, a smal crater twenty yards out from our own line. We spend the night listening for what Fritz iz up to, but all we hear is a German soldier moaning and mumbling, wounded badly but still alive and in the middle of no man's land... He is talking some sort of secret language now, I think, speaking with the spirit who will take him on the three day road."

    Elijah slips over the breech and quietly puts him out of his misery. The act is both of one of humanity and the cruel fact of war—that people die and those who participate in war must take a side. 

    Is there a hero to the story?

    Ailsa from the group decides that it is Niska. Niska is the medicine woman who raises both boys in the ways of the land. Niska is called upon by villagers to deal with a crazed member of the tribe who has cannabalized their dead and cannot resolve the act. Niska gently restores her nephew's broken spirit, and returns him to the living.

    Growing-up in residential schools vs. nature

    There is the theme of friendship between two native boys, one raised in the old ways, the other raised in the residential school where he is forced to give up his language, his dress, his customs, his family—his very name, and he is sexually abused by one of the Nuns. What effect does this have on the boys? Xavier is strong and quiet. He neither seeks approval nor cares about the scorn he receives as an Indian. We question whether Elijah would have been so quick to pander to the troops and his superiors, or whether he would have developed an insatiable quest for sniper kills and glory, if he had been raised with respect for his own identity.

    What about Canada's war efforts & national identity?

    Here the group had several comments. The consesus was that the reason Canadian soldiers went to war in WWI was in support of the mother country—duty. This war marked the beginning of man's capacity for mass destruction with new weapons heralding enormous rates of mortality. Sixty thousand men died at one battle in one day in Somme, France.

    B000FBH3W2Only twenty years later WWII was declaired, and everyone thought they were called to battle evil. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq today is less easy. The rational for participation is not clear. Someone recommended the documentary Why We Fight as a valuable source to understand what has been coined by Eisenhower as the industrial military complex. [This documentary has commentary by Susan Eisenhower. Ranked 557 in DVD's on Amazon.]

    The morality in war

    Several acts of murder occur within the story in various contexts—some at war, others outside of it. The group discussed those incidences in the book:

    • the soldier caught sleeping on duty and shot by firing squad by his own men
    • descriptions of night raids and Elijah's forays
    • the senseless killing of the mother and daughter
    • Niska's father enacts infanticide, which leads to his arrest by RCMP and his death
    • Niska's strangulation of the crazed villager
    • and Xavier's final act toward (no spoiler given)

    The spiritual practices

    The passages in Three Day Road where Boyden describes sweat lodges and dream shifting and the special connection between Niska and Xavier are fascinating. Someone commented that North American immigrants learned from their Aboriginal neighbors, such that fundamental differences in sociologic values have been identified by researchers between Europeans and European immigrants. These include respect for the land, a slowness to speak and to anger, the value of family and children, etc.

    Identity switch

    A discussion ensued as to why Boyden chose to have Xavier take-up his friend's identity. Was it a deliberat act or a subliminal accident? Were the two boys in fact one person all along? Is the author making a statement about the real fate of a particular war hero?

    On the qualities of books that become classics

    We all agreed that the book left lasting impressions on us. The quality of writing, and the new Native Canadian perspective Boyden brings to WWI literature seems to portend a lasting readership.

    Next WR Selection

    Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai is winner of the 2006 Booker Prize and the 2007 Critic Circle Award. We meet July 5th at 7pm, location TBA. Find out more about "The Whistler Reads Challenge". Sign up your group then challenge another group to all read the book as well. The group with the most people to complete reading this book by the deadline will be announced on radio and in print and receive prizes at the next meeting. MUST BE WR MEMBERS!! Register today



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