One of the narrators of the novel, Xavier is a young Canadian Cree man who enters World War I with his best friend, Elijah. Xavier’s mother—Niska’s sister Rabbit, known as Anne in the inhospitable wemistikoshiw (white) town of Moose Factory—had descended into alcoholism and was forced to give Xavier up to the residential school when he was very young. After seeing Xavier in a dream, Niska decides to find out if he wants to leave the school, which is in Moose Factory and is run by diabolical white nuns. She hides by the school and observes the nuns’ tyrannical treatment of Xavier. Making bird noises to attract him into the woods, she explains that she is his aunt and asks if he would like to leave. When Xavier immediately responds yes, Niska engineers their daring escape. Later, she raises Xavier to adulthood in the bush, teaching him the secrets of survival and cultivating what turns out to be his incredible hunting ability. At twelve, Xavier befriends Elijah, another Cree who was raised in the residential school. The two become fast friends, and as they grow older and hear of the war, they eventually decide to join. Despite being the best shot in his company—better than Elijah, and possibly the best shot in the Canadian army—Xavier eventually grows to hate war. The constant destruction wears him down and he longs to return home. Throughout the war, he must deal not only with the threat of death or injury, but also with racism from the white soldiers and tension caused by Elijah's growing bloodthirstiness. Finally, a severe injury causes Xavier’s leg to be amputated; while in the hospital, the continual administration of morphine fosters an addiction. Finally, Xavier returns to Moose Factory with deep emotional and physical wounds. His three-day journey down the river with Niska sends him back into memories of the war, and poses a final test to his endurance and will to survive.
A Cree-Ojibwe medicine woman, Niska is Xavier’s aunt and the second narrator of Three Day Road. Niska was raised in one of the last existing bush communities of Northern Ontario Indigenous people. She grew up with her mother, her sister Rabbit, and her father, a skilled medicine man who could divine the future and communicate with spirits. From a young age, Niska suffered from convulsions in which she saw flashes of the future. When Niska was a child, her community was hit by a devastating famine, and she watched her father strangle a woman who had become cannibalistic. Eventually, her father was arrested by the wemistikoshiw for this act, which brought about the dissolution of the bush community. Niska spent her young adulthood living alone in the forest. She had an intense romance with a white French hunter, but ultimately he betrayed her. After this, Niska completely isolated herself, only occasionally visited by other bush Indians who request her divining skills. Rescuing Xavier from the residential school, raising him and teaching him the secrets of the hunt, and meeting his friend Elijah all brought joy into Niska’s life. When they left, she braved the hostile white-dominated town of Moose Factory to hear news of their fate. In the three-day journey that serves an anchoring point of the narrative, Niska retrieves a wounded Xavier from the train station. She paddles them back to her home in the bush, nourishing Xavier both physically and emotionally with stories from her past. By the end of the novel, her struggle to keep her nephew alive reaches a powerful conclusion.
Elijah “Whiskeyjack” Weesageechak
Like Xavier, Elijah’s mother died when he was young and he has never seen his father, who was a trapper for the Hudson Bay Company. Elijah was raised in the residential school, learning English there. He was sexually abused by one of the nuns as a boy. After befriending Xavier, Elijah leaves the residential school to live with Niska and Xavier in the bush. He is a skilled hunter, less talented but bolder than Xavier. Elijah loves to talk, and everyone he meets seems to want to impress him. In the war, he is quickly recognized for his skill as a sniper and for his bravery, which borders on recklessness, in battle. Although highly decorated in the army, Elijah suffers from secret demons: a morphine addiction and a growing lust for killing. Ultimately, he disobeys orders and commits atrocities such as scalping his victims to prove his kill count. As Elijah spirals out of control, murdering civilians and his fellow soldiers, Xavier struggles with his loyalty to his friend and the desire to confront him.
McCaan is Xavier and Elijah’s sergeant. He is one of the few military officials who respects the two for their skills and even seems to deeply care about them, rather than dismissing them because of their First Nations ethnicity. He saves Xavier’s life by shooting a soldier who is about to kill him. He also hones and encourages Xavier and Elijah’s sniping abilities.
Breech is a tyrannical lieutenant who epitomizes the racism and selfishness that Xavier and Elijah see in many military officials. He repeatedly endangers his own men with risky endeavors whose lone objective is to enhance his own reputation. He also exhibits repeated racism towards Elijah, continuously mocking, taunting, and doubting him. Eventually, Elijah kills Breech after a fellow soldier tells the lieutenant of Elijah’s battlefield atrocities.
Grey Eyes is a fellow soldier of Xavier and Elijah. He is heavily addicted to morphine and entices Elijah to try the drug, facilitating his addiction. Eventually, he deserts the army and is not seen for several weeks. When he returns, he tells Breech of Elijah’s battlefield transgressions in an effort to avoid being executed for desertion. After a bomb explodes the dugout where they are talking, Elijah clubs a stunned Grey Eyes to death.
Another soldier in Xavier and Elijah’s company, Fat earned his nickname from his large physical stature. Despite his fear of the battlefield and limitations in fitness, he is the only soldier from Xavier and Elijah’s original company to survive with them throughout the war. He exhibits some kindness to Xavier and Elijah, helping Xavier read a letter that Niska sent him.
The oldest soldier in Xavier and Elijah’s company, Graves is a veteran. He often remarks on the barbarity of this war compared to his previous military experience. He also forms an unlikely friendship with Fat. Ultimately, Graves is killed by a flamethrower-wielding German, distracted by an order that Elijah accidentally gives in Cree instead of English.
Thompson is a corporal in Xavier and Elijah’s company. He shows some kindness to Xavier and Elijah, admiring them for their natural hunting ability. He is ultimately wounded in battle and rescued by Elijah, but his injuries are so severe that he is sent to an army hospital, where he dies.
Closely based off the real-life Indigenous Canadian war hero Francis Pegahmagabow, Peggy never actually appears in the novel, but is frequently mentioned by other soldiers. His story illustrates how First Nation soldiers’ accomplishments are suppressed because of the racist doubts that jealous officers harbor. He also represents an envied, unachievable standard for Elijah.
Netmaker is a Cree Indian who is kind to Niska, supporting her when she asks the hostile wemistikoshiw for news about Xavier and Elijah, and helping her write a letter to Xavier. However, his good intentions lead to disastrous results, as his poor translation ends up telling Xavier that he is the only surviving member of his family. Distress caused by this mistaken news that Niska has died sends Xavier spiraling deeper into a depression already fueled by the destruction and death around him.
The French soldiers
A group of French soldiers fuel Elijah’s desire to kill and to keep tangible trophies—scalps—that provide evidence for his acts. These soldiers annoy Elijah with the story of Peggy’s superior accomplishments and encourage him to scalp those he has killed so no one will doubt his accomplishments. Elijah takes their advice seriously, and after months of war go by, he finds the French soldiers again to show them his scalp collection. This time, they are impressed but horrified at what he shows, believing him to be mad. They represent a cruel solution to the issue of racist doubt of First Nations accomplishment, as well as the darker forces in Elijah that spur him to kill.
Three Day Road Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Three Day Road is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think the tension between the two boys is one of contrasting and colliding cultures. While Xavier rejects the English speaking vernacular, Elijah seems quite content even welcoming his name change from Weesagechak to Whickeyjack to make it...