I have been browsing Three Day Road again for my recent Remembrance reading because Joseph Boyden's first novel shines its bright and all-seeing eye on Canadian Cree Indians Xavier and Elijah who found their innate hunting skills so advantageous in the trenches of WW I. It is a tough, uncompromising but ultimately very moving book and immensely powerful for so many reasons.
Joseph Boyden is a brilliant story-teller with an intimate and immediate sort of wrap-around the-reader writing style, I have no trouble leaping in and wallowing because it feels strangely as if he's only writing for me. His ability to retain my attention and draw me in seems to hold me there at a very personal level, nothing remote or distant and perhaps it's partly down to Joseph Boyden's consummate skill with interior monologue. I feel as I read that I alone am privy to and being trusted with the deepest most personal mind-workings of his characters, becoming closely acquainted with them through their thoughts and actions not description.
Am I back in the realms of literary showing and telling with that simplistic observation?
There is a continuity with Three Day Road as Will Bird, the grandson of Xavier and himself a Cree bush pilot who, for reasons unknown until the very end of the novel, is lying unconscious in hospital in Moose Factory, his hometown in Northern Ontario. Annie his niece takes up a bedside vigil and slowly through alternating chapters, Will and Annie first-person narratives, the story unfolds.
Will has inherited Xavier's innate native Indian skills as well as his gun, making his life one of traditional trapping and hunting all marred by old feuds, failed relationships and ensuing tragedy and fuelled to self-destructive excess by alcohol. Annie meanwhile is next generation and whilst retaining the instincts and perfectly capable of trapping a beaver has a foot in the modern-day and has been searching for her missing sister Suzanne, who left Moose Factory for the bright lights of New York and the life of a model.
My literary imagination has bought into all sorts of romantic notions about Canada since the discovery at about the age of eight that Anne "with an e" Shirley of Green Gables and I (as Lynne "with an e") were indeed kindred spirits and that Prince Edward Island was surely a far preferable place to live than anywhere else on earth.
In fact it's probably a lucky escape for our children that I didn't call them Marilla, Matthew and Gilbert.
But any pre-conceived assumptions I may have nurtured about Canada and its literature, the wilderness country, young girls quoting the Lady of Shalott in a runaway canoe and handsome chaps called Gilbert plus all that lovely snow, took a quantum leap into reassessment following a read of Margaret Atwood's book Survival, A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Now I approach with a very open mind, ready to be shown something new about a country I've never set foot in but somehow love from afar and it never fails.
In Through Black Spruce Joseph Boyden clearly identifies that Canada is not the only place where survival might be the ultimate challenge. Whilst undoubtedly the Canadian bush of Northern Ontario is the place where life and limb especially for the Cree still seems to be balanced precariously in a state of worried and persecuted existence, it is all cleverly and starkly juxtaposed to the equally precarious world south of the 49th parallel, revealing that in its own way life in Manhattan can be just as deceitful and equally capable of inflicting that fatal and terminal blow.
In Survival, first published in 1972, Margaret Atwood carefully examines the role of the First People in Canadian literature. There is much about the Indian as victim and Indians as the 'instruments of Nature the Monster, torturing and killing white victims as well as a striving to relate to Indians as ancestors'. Expect Joseph Boyden to leap right in and elaborate on these elements, making them 2008 compliant and some, thereby perhaps moving the entire First People debate onwards and upwards?
Like Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce occasionally requires a certain strength of stomach. There is nothing namby-pamby about Joseph Boyden's writing, as Jim Harrison quoted on the back cover suggests,
'Three Day Road is a brilliant novel. You will suffer a bit but it's overwhelmingly worth the voyage'
with further endorsements from Louise Erdrich and Isabel Allende, both no strangers to the No-Namby-Pamby school, the reader is warned but hopefully never deterred.
We house a gamekeeper here so nature red in tooth and claw is an accepted part of daily life, others may baulk at the thought of cooked beaver tail and I'll admit that hasn't been on the menu here lately, but apparently it's delicious. Now surely not that different to some of the recipes to be found in that Persephone reprint, They Can't Ration These by Vicomte de Mauduit, wherein you haven't lived until you've roasted a hedgehog or baked a squirrel (incidentally beavers and squirrels closely related and seemingly no need to waste the tails of either.)
We get very squeamish in some literary circumstances yet not others but whatever you do keep an eye out for Through Black Spruce. It's most deserving of Giller victory and be ready for the cleverest of endings which had me fooled for a while after I had turned the final page, brilliant and surprising.
Meanwhile, and I can't believe that this can have been Joseph Boyden's intention with his fabulously sparkling Giller Prize-winning novel so my humble apologies to him, but I am left with two outcomes.
Now I absolutely must have a Hudson's Bay point blanket and I also cannot suppress an overwhelming urge to walk over to my Lucy Maud Montgomery shelf.