Three Day Road

Three Day Road Summary and Analysis of Sections 18-21


During Christmas, the men are allowed to go back behind the lines where some holiday festivities are taking place. Xavier and Elijah join some Frenchmen drinking in a pub. They begin drinking and talking together, and one of the Frenchmen mentions Peggy—the legendary indigenous Canadian sniper whose kills are not acknowledged because he works alone. This angers Elijah, and he takes morphine to calm himself down. He talks with one of the Frenchmen, who advises him to start taking the scalps of the soldiers he kills, in order to avoid going uncredited like Peggy and to earn the respect of the French.

The soldiers are moved north, where the cold, as well as reminders that hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers died in this area in the past few years, make life in the trenches even more desolate. One night in late January, a large raiding party is sent out; Elijah volunteers to go, while Xavier sits the mission out. When Elijah returns to the trench, he tells Xavier of how the night went: when crawling over the trench, he landed on the roof of a dugout where three soldiers were concealed. Trapped up to his waist in the fallen roof, Elijah quickly shot one of the soldiers in the face and sunk his war club into another’s skull. The third soldier aimed his rifle at Elijah’s chest, and Elijah prepared to die—but the rifle was not working. Elijah quickly shot and killed him, then worked his way out of the roof. He shoots the soldier who was clubbed in the face, then suffocates the third soldier.

At this point, Elijah stops telling Xavier about the raid, but Xavier notes that he would learn the rest of the story later. After suffocating the third soldier, Elijah thought about how he could easily have died that night. He scalps the dead man and places the hair in his bag, telling himself that some Indians consider this a sign of honor in battle. Then he ran back to the Canadian trenches with the others just as Germans began to send heavy fire their way. A few days later, Elijah admits to Xavier that the morphine has caused him to lose too much weight and prevented him from making any bowel movements for a long time, but that when he goes without it he suffers severe headaches and pain.

The next section returns to Niska’s point of view. She pulls the canoe to the side of the river and cooks herself bannock. Xavier still cannot eat, so Niska decides she must nourish him with her stories instead. She tells him that her mother died suddenly one year; afterwards, Niska retreated into the bush, hearing talk that Rabbit, Xavier’s mother, had become an alcoholic and given Xavier up to the residential school. The next autumn Niska again began to suffer from violent, painful fits and visions. In one of these visions, she saw Xavier and decided to try to sneak him away from the residential school, if he wanted to leave.

Niska makes a three-day canoe journey to the school. Not many children remain during the summer months, and after two days of discreetly watching the children as they play outside, she guesses which one is Xavier. She watches as the despotic Sister Magdalene forces Xavier to take her fishing in a canoe, smacking him with the oar if he rests. One day while the children are playing, Niska hides in the forest by the school and attracts Xavier by making the sound of a grouse. She explains to Xavier that she is his aunt, and he agrees unhesitatingly to escape the cruel residential school and go live with her in the bush.

The next day, she meets Xavier in the river as he paddles Sister Magdalene. Xavier steers the canoe closer to Niska, and Niska wails so loudly that Sister Magdalene falls out of the canoe. Niska clips her on the head with an oar to avenge the way Sister Magdalene treated Xavier and Niska herself during her brief time in the residential school. Xavier leaps into Niska’s canoe, and the two paddle away. They spend the next few years in the bush; Niska teaches Xavier about hunting and survival. One day, she has one of her violent fits, frightening Xavier, but Niska remembers these times as happy ones. Their third winter together is long, difficult, and cold, and Xavier sometimes cries from hunger, reminding Niska of that fateful harsh winter from her own childhood. Niska has a vision portending that a stranger will visit them soon.

The narrative switches back to Xavier, who lies in the canoe, feeling the stump of his leg and remembering lying in an army hospital bed, continuously staring at the wound. Xavier wonders if that time is when he decided to die; he knows that his morphine addiction stems from the nurses’ frequent administration of the medicine. His memories travel further back, to the time before Niska rescued him from the residential school. He and Elijah protected each other and schemed about how they would escape. Xavier starts to doze off and his memories return to France during war. Throughout that winter, Xavier suffers from depression and longs to see Lisette again. He spends weeks carrying bags of mud to reinforce the trenches, but eventually he decides that he wants to tell Lisette stories of adventure if he sees her again—so he rejoins Elijah as a sniper again. He feels that his sniping is a mode of survival rather than murder, as long as he continues to pray to Gitchi Manitou.

Xavier’s hearing worsens because of the constant gunfire around the troops. A large offensive move is planned, and Xavier and Elijah are instructed to snipe as many German machine gun operators as they can. As they lie in the dugout, waiting for the battle to begin, Elijah tells Xavier that he has been saving two magazines of ammunition for the Mauser rifle. When Xavier retrieves the bullets from Elijah’s knapsack, he finds the scalp of the German solider inside. In the night before the battle begins, Elijah sneaks off to a nearby German listening post and slits the throats of the three soldiers manning it, taking their scalps after he is done.

The next morning, the battle begins. Xavier and Elijah drink rum to steel themselves as the Canadian troops charge the German trenches. Throughout the winter, the Canadian engineers have dug tunnels so that the Canadians can reach the trenches without crossing no-man’s land—but the Germans have also dug tunnels to protect themselves from Canadian artillery. The battle quickly intensifies, and Elijah and Xavier shoot at as many Germany soldiers as they can through the thickly falling snow. Xavier is spotted, and he scrambles to a new position to avoid the heavy fire now coming in his direction. From his new nest, he shoots and kills two German machine gun operators.

The Canadian troops catch up with Xavier, but he stays lying down to catch his breath. Gilberto sees Xavier and extends a hand to help him up, but as he does, he is shot in the face. Xavier joins the Canadian troops rushing towards the German line. He whispers Niska’s name to calm himself as men fall dead around him. The Canadians overrun the German lines and the fighting turns to brutal close-range shooting and hand-to-hand combat. Xavier stabs two men who charge at him, using his bayonet. The second one, still alive, begins to strangle Xavier, but McCaan rescues Xavier just in time by shooting the German in the head. Xavier passes out as the Germans begin to retreat.

After the battle, the men are sent to a bombed-out town to rest for a few days. Xavier is told that he continued to fight in the battle after McCaan killed his attacker, although he doesn’t remember this. Elijah had found him slumped over a parapet and carried him back to the Canadian trench. Elijah brags to the other soldiers about his many kills during the battle, both by rifle and bayonet, and Xavier resents the fact that Elijah downplays Xavier’s contributions, but gains some of his pride back when he is able to shoot a duck on the nearby river that Elijah misses. Elijah dries the scalps he has taken and carries them around, allowing himself to descend into a morphine-fueled madness when he is alone with Xavier.

The troops are told that they will be sent to a different area soon, and Xavier decides that he will see Lisette before they leave. He sneaks onto an ambulance heading toward the town where she lives. While on the ambulance, Xavier thinks back to when he and Elijah traveled by train to the recruiting depot in Toronto. They slept by a lake because the loud noises and crowds of the city made Xavier panic. Elijah walked to a graveyard and met a young white girl whose father died in France, but her mother called her sharply back when she saw her talking to him.

The ambulance arrives in Lisette’s town and Xavier begins walking the path to the estaminet. Once there, he knocks and finds Lisette, but she is unhappy to see him. She reveals that she is with another man. This man comes to the door and Xavier sees that he is a British officer; Xavier is overcome with anger and punches him. He accidentally knocks Lisette to the ground too, and when he tries to help her up, she screams at him to leave. He runs away into the night. Xavier catches a ride back to the camp with a truck full of soldiers from another regiment. When he gets back to his regiment, Elijah insinuates that he paid Lisette to sleep with Xavier. After roll call, the officers announce that Elijah has received an award for unmatched bravery in the recent battle. Breech calls Xavier to the lieutenant’s quarters, and Elijah goes with him, pretending Xavier’s English is so poor that he needs a translator. While Xavier spits out obscenities and admits his jealousy to Elijah in Cree, Elijah tells the officers that Xavier was gone for the past day and night because he was catching game for the men, and that he has frequently been confused since suffering a blow to the head during battle. Breech orders Xavier to three days’ confinement under the watch of a medic. While resting, he refuses to kill three baby sparrows that are nesting in the cabin, even after Breech orders him to. Elijah kills the birds instead.


The account of Xavier and Niska’s meeting, their planned breakout of Xavier from the residential school, and their subsequent life in the bush provides some explanation as to Xavier’s character. He is certainly not unused to hardship, having not only suffered at the hands of the nuns but also endured a cold, hungry winter in his youth. Xavier’s success as a soldier can be attributed not only to his natural talents, but also to Niska’s instructions on hunting and the resistance, to some extent, from physical misery that Xavier appears to have developed.

In addition, in this section the French soldiers propose a dubious way for Elijah to prove himself. Unknowingly playing off the frustration that Elijah felt after Breech’s dismissal of his kill report, the French show Elijah how he can utilize the talent and relish for killing that he has already developed in order to earn respect in the army. By offering tangible proof of his battlefield accomplishments, Elijah can effectively transcend the racial boundaries that slow his upward process in the military hierarchy. Furthermore, Elijah relates his method of subverting these race-based restrictions—that of scalping soldiers—back to his own culture by telling himself that some Indians consider a scalp collection a sign of honor in battle. Ironically, however, the lengths to which Elijah is determined to go in pursuit of respect actually exceed the lengths that would truly give him more authority and recognition, since scalping is considered an atrocity and would likely cast Elijah is a negative light. The fact that he doesn’t share his scalp collection with anyone indicates that he is keeping it more for a sense of personal vindication and bloodthirst than to increase his rank or prove Breech wrong.

The concept of visions poses an alternative to physical proof. Niska’s fits, and the glimpses of the future that accompany them, lead her to Xavier and to the happiest times in her life. While being able to see the future is by no means a blessing, Niska’s visions contrast with the sense of omniscience that Elijah experiences while using morphine. Visions thus play an important role in the novel as a means of bringing about happiness and destruction, of bringing both joy and pain into Niska’s life, and improving Elijah’s battlefield performance while also edging him on to continue his morphine use.

A theme of deterioration is explored in these sections, as Xavier sinks into depression while simultaneously losing more and more of his hearing. His increasing deafness dulls his battlefield ability and his sensory awareness of the world around him, while his depression leaves him emotionally numb and withdrawn. Xavier willingly continues to soften the edge of reality by drinking rum before battle, giving him another degree of distance from the churning horrors that surround him. Eventually, though, this numbness transforms into anger.

A sense of hopelessness is created by Xavier’s realization that Lisette never loved him and that he was betrayed by Elijah. Xavier’s longing for a connection and, ultimately, for home, manifests itself in his repetition of Niska’s name during battle. Like Niska, he rejects the wemistikoshiw, ignoring Breech when he orders him to kill the baby birds. Retreating into his own world of resentment, Xavier’s frustration with the never-ending war, as well as his and Elijah’s role in it, comes to a head as he lies angrily in the infirmary.

In addition, we see that Xavier is longing for connection and love. Even though he only shared one night with Lisette, he is still willing to risk being court-martialed and to travel a full day just to see her. This makes Lisette’s betrayal even more devastating, as Xavier has thought about Lisette for months, building an entire mental safety net with his fantasies of her love. Elijah’s involvement in the betrayal further exacerbates his feelings of anger. We can see Xavier come close to a breaking point here, as the mind-numbing yet life-threatening drudgery of war can no longer be alleviated by thoughts of Lisette or trust in Elijah. His frustration reaches a peak in a surprisingly comic scene where Elijah provides the officers with more acceptable translations of Xavier’s furious thoughts.