Interview with Joseph Boyden
What inspired you to write Three Day Road? What is your personal relationship to the story you tell in the novel?
Having grown up the son of a man whom King George VI declared the most highly decorated medical officer in the British Empire, I was surrounded and obsessed by the complications and myth of war. My father didn't talk to his children about his experiences, but I was a reader and investigator from a very early age, finding Toronto Telegram news stories describing his exploits on the Gothic Line in Italy. It seems my dad had a penchant for rescuing wounded soldiers in the midst of enemy fire on the front line. Rummaging through our house, I also found his many medals, newspaper pictures of his returning from Europe and a parchment signed by the king himself inviting my dad to the Court of Saint James to receive his Distinguished Service Order.
Beyond my dad's war experience, my mother's father and my father's brother both served in World War I, the first as a motorcycle dispatch rider, the second as an infantryman. I spent much of my youth on and around Georgian Bay, near both Christian Island and Parry Island reserves, and it was here my Ojibwe friends first told me the legend of Francis Pegahmagabow, the great Indian marksman of the First World War. He was an adept hunter, able to lie still for days in no man's land, and by war's end recorded more enemy kills than any other sniper in the Great War, or any war, for that matter. He returned to Parry Island a hero, the most highly decorated native soldier in Canada, becoming chief of the reserve. And yet very few people know of him anymore. The idea for my novel began as a combination of my own family's history combined with the myth of Francis.
Accounts of the Great War refer to mud, lice, trenches and dead bodies, and so I had a lot of macabre details to work with while at the same time trying to avoid what have become the clichéd images of this war.
Why did you decide to begin the novel at the end of the story, after Xavier has come home?
The first couple of drafts of the novel were actually told chronologically: Xavier and Elijah paddling away from their home, eventually getting to Toronto, going through training, being sent overseas and experiencing the war. Interspersed in the novel were chapters narrated in a strange woman's voice, telling the stories of her life. In the original version, it wasn't until three quarters of the way through the book that the reader finds out that this woman is actually Xavier's aunt, Niska. I liked this surprise of the reader's discovering who Niska was late in the novel. As well as this, chronologically writing the first draft also helped me to find the story and be historically accurate. But I wasn't satisfied with the way the story read. Something, some key ingredient, was missing.
In different conversations with the editors Marc Cote and Francis Geffard, as well as speaking with my wife, Amanda, it struck me that I was applying a Western style of storytelling to an aboriginal story. And so I thought about what is important to the Cree and Ojibwe. Life evolves around a circle. The earth, the sun, the moon are all round, and we live our days according to their dictation. The seasons travel through spring, summer, autumn, winter and back to spring again. The teepee and the wigwam and the shaking tent and the fire ring are circular structures. And so I decided to begin this story near the chronological end and then trace through the circle around to where I started. Niska knows that the circle can't be broken and fights as hard as she can to keep Xavier alive so that one day he may have his own children and keep the cycle intact. I wanted Xavier to leave home, but I also wanted him to return to Niska.
How much research did you do for the book? How much of Francis Pegahmagabow is in the novel?
Undertaking a first novel that deals with the Great War was a daunting task. Thousands of books have been written on the subject and the magnitude of the conflict is mind-boggling. It's taken me the same amount of time to write this book as it took for the actual conflict to play itself out. It would have taken me twice as long if I'd not met and befriended the Canadian World War I historian Jim Steel, who's written a number of fantastic books on the subject. He's proven invaluable and a good friend. To complicate matters further, the art of the modern sniper was a product of this war, but material on the sniper is difficult to come by. Finally, my research was complicated and enriched by the importance of the role that Native Canadian soldiers played in this conflict. It's a fact that on many reserves virtually all eligible men signed up and were shipped off, only to come home without any recognition.
As for how much of the real-life hero Francis Pegahmagabow is in this novel, I want to stress that he served as inspiration but not as fact. The idea of a native person utilizing his hunting skills on the battlefield to such devastating effect is about as far as it went. I invented my own story of Elijah and Xavier from there.
I must also add that modern Canada was born from the deeds of its World War I soldiers. In writing this novel, I traced the route of Canada's Second Division, which saw action in some of the Western Front's most atrocious battles. They were ordinary men placed in a grotesque situation, and it was often the Canadians who made the difference on the outcome of these battles and, eventually, in their part of the war.
Can you discuss the relationship between fact and imagination in the writing of a historical novel? How difficult is it to blend the real and the imagined into a single narrative?
I found it very helpful to know from historical research when and where Elijah and Xavier would actually be during the war. I placed them with the real-life Canadian Second Division because it went overseas at right about the time I wanted my two characters to head overseas. As well as this, the Second Division participated in some of the war's worst battles.
Once I had placed my characters geographically, it was up to my imagination to try to envision what these places must have been like. Accounts of the Great War refer to mud, lice, trenches and dead bodies, and so I had a lot of macabre details to work with while at the same time trying to avoid what have become the clichéd images of this war. My two characters becoming snipers gave me the freedom to let them wander away from the trenches and into more varied geographical landscapes outside of the trenches. I also learned while writing and researching this novel that whatever horrors my mind could make up were rarely a match for the real thing.
As for Niska, the blending of the historical and the imagined into a single narrative happened very organically. I knew quite a bit about what the Cree of northern Ontario went through in the period spanning Niska's life. The biggest challenge was to realistically create a proud, strong woman who did not give in during a time of cultural upheaval. Writing Niska’s chapters is still for me some of the most memorable of my writing career to date. Whenever I sat down to work on her chapters I could hear her voice speaking to me, almost as if it was being channelled to me. This kind of writing is something I hope to experience again!
Do you want the novel to be read as a cautionary tale for our own time? How do you feel the novel illuminates our current experience of war?
Although I did not consciously write this book as a cautionary tale, I think that any novel that deals with warfare realistically ends up being a story of warning. The politicians and the powers-that-be decide to go to war. The average man is sent to fight it. I've heard over and over again that soldiers on both sides of the Great War had no ill feelings toward one another. In fact, on many parts of the front during the first Christmas of the war, an unofficial truce was made between the two sides and they met in no man's land to trade cigarettes and chocolate with one another.
We also should remember that World War I was the first "modern" war. The first weapons of mass destruction were used in the form of gas, and the first mechanized combat vehicles appeared in the form of tanks. Both (gas, especially) were used on humans to horrifying effect. I think of this war as being the Pandora's box that ushered in the twentieth century. And once we opened this box, it could not be closed.
Much of the novel is about the act of storytelling. Why is this so important for the book and for you as a writer?
It only struck me after I finished my final draft of the novel that I created something that is a bit like one of those Russian Matrioshka dolls, the ones where you open up the doll to find other, smaller dolls inside. But instead of the "dolls" in my novel getting smaller, they get bigger. Niska tells Xavier stories of her life, Elijah is obsessively compelled to tell Xavier war stories and poor Xavier is too damaged to speak of his own stories and so relives them in his morphine-addled head.
On a craft-based level, I was uncomfortable having these characters talking directly to the reader. I wanted to avoid what I felt was too self-conscious a style, and so I had each protagonist in the book tell a story directly to another. Niska and Elijah tell their stories to Xavier, and Xavier tells his own stories to himself. In the end, of course, the reader is the recipient, and hopefully the reader feels like a participant in a type of confession, a sharing and cleansing.
Of course, the Cree and Ojibwe tradition of storytelling is as deeply rooted as any other part of the culture. Storytelling is the lifeblood of the anishnabe. It is how lessons are taught, family histories are kept alive and good times are had.
How has your scholarly work in aboriginal programs influenced your writing of Three Day Road?
Had I not lived and taught on James Bay and continued to visit there extensively for the last ten years, I don't think I would have created this book. The remote communities I've fallen in love with certainly feel the influence of Western culture in almost all aspects of life, but still retain ties to the land and to the ancestors. Nature still dictates on James Bay, and the Cree, contemporary as many of them have become, still live according to the cycle of the seasons. Autumn is the time to prepare for the coming winter, winter is the time to trap and dream of spring, spring is the time of the river break-up and preparing for summer and summer is a time of family and friends.
What is life like for the Cree people in Canada today? Are there any writers of Cree or Ojibwe ancestry you would recommend to your readers?
Many native languages are faced with extinction or are already extinct, but Ojibwe and Cree remain two of the healthiest surviving native languages in North America. I think this is due, in part, to many of these peoples' living in more remote geographical areas, places where the English language doesn't necessarily dominate every aspect of life. These remote areas are often completely out of the spotlight and off most people's radar screens.
Often, a lot of poverty and violence and drug and alcohol abuse exist here. And these are the stories that trickle down to the rest of us. But there is a lot more to these communities that we don't hear about. Many of them are actively dealing with and slowly excising the ghosts created by contact with what was often the worst of Western culture. Most often, it seems to me, the source of a lot of Cree and Ojibwe pain comes in the form of residential schools. We must remember that residential schools forcefully removed children from their families and communities and tried to integrate these children into the dominant culture by any means necessary. Abuse in all its forms became rampant. These schools remained until the 1970s, leaving many generations of Cree and Ojibwe to try to pick up the pieces of their culture and to try to learn for themselves once again who they are. The shockwaves of the residential school system are still clearly visible today, but the Cree and Ojibwe are resilient people. They're survivors.
Canada has some wonderful aboriginal writers. I highly recommend the Cree writer Tomson Highway and the Ojibwe writers Drew Hayden Taylor and Richard Wagamese as three examples of writers who really capture the contemporary and traditional pulse of native Canada. I also recommend the Cherokee writer Thomas King for his humour and vision as well as the Dogrib writer Richard Van Camp for his poetic portrayal of life in the far north.
As for native writers in the United States, Louise Erdrich is one of the greats. Her novels, short stories and poetry are simply beautiful. James Welch is also one of the contemporary classics. Sherman Alexie is the next generation, a wonderfully gifted writer.
What are you working on now?
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy writing non-fiction about the devastation Katrina left in my adopted city of New Orleans but I’ve also been pursuing a new novel. With this one, I've moved from the historical to the contemporary. Long ago I envisioned a trilogy of novels dealing with many generations of the Bird Clan. In this second book, Xavier's children and grandchildren are the central players. Unfortunately, at the beginning of this one, some of the Birds find themselves at the slough of their fortune. The theme of the windigo visits once again, this time applied to the world of the contemporary reservation, as well as to a much more urban world in which many Native Canadians find themselves.