Anchored in the narrative of a three-day canoe journey by two Cree Indians, Xavier and Niska, the novel spins forwards and backwards from this point to encompass both of their stories: from the bush of Northern Ontario, where the independent and spiritual Niska grew up, to the World War I battlefields of Europe, where her nephew Xavier and his best friend Elijah were torn apart by war. Debilitated by morphine addiction and the pain of recovering from a leg amputation, Xavier returns in his thoughts to the war as Niska paddles their canoe toward her home in the bush. Xavier’s mind replays his arrival with Elijah in Europe; as the battles begin, both are recognized by the military officials for their sniping ability. As the war goes on, the constant death and destruction wear on Xavier, dragging him into a deep depression. In contrast, Elijah feeds off of the cruelty, growing bolder and more bloodthirsty both on and off the battlefield. His dependence on morphine does little to help his growing thirst for violence.
Niska’s story recounts a different kind of destruction: the end of a way of life. As she nourishes Xavier with food and water, she also tries to nourish him through talk. Her stories return to her childhood: growing up with other Cree in the bush of Northern Ontario, Niska learned the arts of divination and communion with spirits from her father. As she grows older, the Cree bush community dissolves, and she spends much of her adulthood living on her own—except for occasional disastrous encounters with white city dwellers, the wemistikoshiw. Niska derives great joy from raising Xavier, her dead sister’s son, and listening to the stories of his best friend, Elijah. As the three days pass and Niska paddles their canoe closer to home, Xavier fears that he will die when his supply of morphine disappears. Niska’s determination to keep him alive—to resurrect him from the war-fueled emotional death he has suffered—builds to the conclusion of the novel, which is paralleled by a shocking revelation about Xavier’s experience in the war.