“Elijah watches. His eyes miss nothing. He takes off one mitten and bends down to touch the marten’s naked body. ‘We are great hunters, aren’t we, Xavier?’ ‘Yes, Elijah,’ I say. ‘We are great hunters and best friends, yes?’ ‘Yes,' I say.”
This quote illustrates Elijah’s observant qualities. Xavier’s stories about his friend reveal that he was a fast learner when it came to hunting, quickly picking up on the tricks and rituals of the process. In addition, the quotes introduce the two contrasting modes of their relationship: best friends who care for each other, and hunters who are torn apart by different approaches to the hunting of humans that war requires.
“He told stories softly so that you had to lean close to him to hear, so close you could smell the smoke in the hide ribbon my mother weaved into his hair, the scent of his neck like the wind coming off the Great Salt Bay. I used to imagine that he weaved his stories all summer, his words forming invisible nets that he cast over us on the long winter nights, capturing us and pulling us in closer together so that we collected each other’s warmth. And sometimes his stories were all that we had to keep us alive.”
Niska’s father epitomizes the importance of stories in the novel, showing how they are used as literal sustenance. Just as Niska and Xavier need their physical health to live, they also need a sense of connection to others and a distraction from the struggle in which they are engaged. Stories fulfill both of these purposes, allowing Niska to nurse Xavier back to health and helping Niska’s father keep up his family’s spirit.
“‘Water came up last night and washed them away’ [Elijah] says in English as we load the canoe and push off. He doesn’t say this in Cree. Their tongue is better for lies.”
The differences between the Cree and the wemistikoshiw are made apparent in part by their different languages. Xavier thinks that English is better for lying than the Cree language, which illustrates his underlying mistrust of the white Canadians: after all, he has received nothing but mistreatment from them since the nuns physically and verbally abused him in the residential school. The quote also demonstrates the deep, mutual sense of caring that Elijah and Xavier feel; they will lie to protect each other.
“I slip into half dreams, go back to my short time in the residential school, old Sister Magdalene and her stinking breath like burnt wool. I see her mouth moving as we boys sit frightened at our desks, her words pouring out like the river. ‘The old Cree are heathen and anger God,’ she says.”
Although the residential school is designed to help the Cree children, in reality it harms them beyond repair, as the nuns take their proselytizing to abusive lengths. The nuns believe that the Cree are “heathen” and “anger God,” so they resort to incredibly harsh lengths to make the children conform to their strict standards; Sister Magdalene ultimately foregoes all pretenses at helping the children and sexually abuses Elijah. These negative experiences have deep and lasting effects on Elijah.
“It strikes me then. None of these who are here today can call me a useless bush Indian ever again. They might not say it out loud, but they know now that I have something special.”
Elijah and Xavier must work to prove themselves to the army officials, who are prejudiced and automatically mistrust First Nations soldiers. After he wins the shooting contest, Xavier revels in the knowledge that he has effectively proven his worth. This points to the fact that the Cree soldiers are valued more for their skills than any inherent worth. Unlike the white soldiers, hey must work hard to overcome the racist assumption that they are “useless.”
“Before he leaves a corpse, Elijah tells me that he has taken to opening each man’s eyes and staring into them, then closing them with his calloused right hand, letting a strange spark of warmth accumulate deep in his gut each time that he does it, noting the colour of the iris, knowing that he, Elijah, is the last thing that each will see before being placed into the cold mud and water here.”
This quote reflects Elijah’s growing fascination with death. In particular, he becomes intoxicated by the power that a killer has: even though he didn’t personally kill the soldiers he is burying, he still feels a rush of God-like control when he knows that his face is the last thing the soldiers’ lifeless eyes will gaze upon before they are buried. His experiences burying these corpses kick-starts a deepening obsession with death.
“We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the other facing what we do to the enemy.”
Xavier grows disillusioned with war throughout his years in the service, realizing that the brutal, violent man-vs.-man battles dehumanize the soldiers. Even when a soldier is lucky enough to survive a battle without physical injury, he cannot escape unscathed when it comes to guilt and remorse felt over the killing other men. Although Xavier acknowledges that killing in war is essentially an act of survival—shoot or be shot—he nonetheless grapples with unease over sniping other men.
“Nephew, before I ever knew you, I had dreams of you. I dreamed that I used to take you out hunting before you could walk. I would bundle you tight in your tikonoggan and carry you on my back through the bush. You were very good. You watched everything. And when we came close to game, you knew to stay quiet. Even then in my dreams I knew you would one day become a great hookimaw.”
Niska and Xavier’s relationship is marked by tenderness and mutual support. Niska’s visions frequently scare her, or bring images of war and death; her prescient imagining of Xavier is a rare example of a vision that actually brings Niska joy. Her vision also reveals Xavier’s hunting skills, as well as his possession of indefinable qualities of self-possession and leadership that combine to make him a potential hookimaw.
“How long have I stayed here, straddling my friend, staring down as my tears leave streaks in the dirt and blood of his dead face? Finally, I sit back and grasp my knees, rock slowly as the shells scream in and explode all around me. My friend lies still, arms stretched out from his body as if he welcomes the sky.”
This quote occurs after the dramatic climax of the novel, in which Xavier is forced to strangle Elijah. It epitomizes the hellish condition that war creates; the screaming shells that have flown overhead throughout war symbolize the death and destruction that Elijah had become obsessed with. The tragic moment confers a sense of utter finality, as well as the mixed guilt and relief that Xavier feels.
“On the nights, the nights that stretch on forever before dawn comes, on those nights when the rain pounds at my little window and the waves rock and beat the ship like Elijah coming to haunt me, I reach shakily into my duffle and feel for the envelope, feel the warmth of the sunlit river coming to lift me up.”
Xavier uses morphine to protect himself not only from physical pain, but also from the memories of his friend. His memories of how twisted Elijah had become by the end of the war mix with his guilt over killing his friend. Since the morphine offers relief from reality and from his own thoughts, Xavier turns to it again and again. The question of whether or not he will break free from its grip and return to life in the unadulterated world is a source of dramatic tension throughout the book.
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...