Three Day Road

Three Day Road Summary and Analysis of Sections 30-32


Niska prepares the riverside campsite for Xavier’s battle with morphine withdrawal. She constructs a small lodge and builds a fire. Returning from the woods, where she was gathering supplies, she finds that a half-conscious and delirious Xavier has crawled into the canoe for protection. She drags him back to the lodge and begins telling him the story of his first hunt, pausing to help feed him softened meat from her own mouth. Xavier was only six, but Niska allowed him to drift away from her while secretly observing him through the trees. He discovered an enormous bull moose and followed its tracks for half of the day. Growing more scared as the day went on, Xavier heard a strange noise and believed that windigos were nearby. He drew his bow and crept into a clearing, where he found the source of the noise: a grouse mating ritual, where a circle of birds surrounded one large grouse and copied its movements. Xavier is amazed and awed by the strange animalistic dance.

Afterwards, feeling hungry, Xavier felled a female grouse with one of his arrows. As he skinned and cooked the bird, Niska approached him, revealing that she had been close by all along. Noticing that Xavier seemed proud rather than afraid, Niska realized that he will be a great bush hunter one day. The next morning, the two tracked the moose further into the woods, and Niska gave Xavier her rifle to shoot the animal. Xavier fired a perfect shot into the moose’s lung. The two return home with their prize, and invite all the other bush Indians to a feast, where Xavier excitedly tells the story of his first hunt. When he reenacts the grouse mating dance, Niska declares that from now on Xavier will be called “Little Bird Dancer.”

As Niska finishes this story, she sees that Xavier is clearly sweating and moaning in pain, and she wonders anxiously if he will survive. She drifts off to sleep next to him and dreams that Xavier and his fellow soldiers are running away from Elijah.

In "Nipiwin: Dying," Xavier wakes up next to Niska beside the campfire. He no longer has the energy to stop himself from thinking about Elijah, and his thoughts return to their last days together. When the company is ordered to advance across an open field—where German fire has killed every soldier attempting to cross—Xavier begins swearing in anger, ripping off his ID tag and announcing that he is not a part of such a stupid army. A lieutenant comes over to ask what the disturbance is, but before Xavier can find the English words to protest the order, the lieutenant is leading the men across the field. Almost immediately, he is blown up and loses his legs; Xavier trips over them, which spares his life as machine gun fire slices through the air where he was standing. Elijah, Xavier, Fat, and other Canadians sprint to a hedgerow, running through heavy fire as men go down all around them.

Elijah announces that he and Xavier will move to a crater in the center of the field, while the other soldiers behind the hedgerow will fire on the German machine gun. When he and Xavier get to the crater, the soldiers are to go back to the Canadian lines for reinforcement. Xavier doubts Elijah’s judgment, since they will be alone in the crater without cover, but feels compelled to follow Elijah anyway. As they sprint to the crater, Xavier is shot through the bicep. He applies a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Meanwhile, Elijah is lying in the middle of the crater, laughing and describing the scene as beautiful while blood runs down his face from a shrapnel injury.

They crawl to the lip of the crater and begin firing on the German machine-gunner. Elijah fires and misses, while Xavier shoots accurately, killing the soldier. Elijah gives Xavier a cigarette to light, and as he does, a shell explodes nearby. Elijah continues to stare through his machine gun scope. Xavier tells Elijah that they must leave the crater, but Elijah responds that they both can’t leave. He suddenly moves to grab Xavier, and Xavier fights back, starting to strangle Elijah. A second shell exploding nearby sends the two flying apart. When the dirt clears, Xavier sees Elijah kneeling above him, asking Xavier why he tried to kill him since they are best friends and great hunters. He begins to strangle Xavier, who uses his rifle to club Elijah in the head. Straddling Elijah, he tells his friend that he has gone mad and begins to press the length of the rifle onto his throat. Xavier realizes that he has become a windigo killer like Niska as he suffocates Elijah, who has stopped struggling. Xavier’s tears drip onto Elijah’s face.

Afterwards, Xavier stays on top of Elijah, staring at the dirt and blood on his dead face. Finally, he turns Elijah over, removes everything from his pockets, and covers his body with dirt, lying the rifle across him—the same Mauser rifle that Elijah always wanted. Stumbling back across the field, he is tossed up in an explosion, and swears that he can see Elijah’s arms outstretched towards him.

After the explosion, all that Xavier can remember is a confused jumble of morphine and pain-induced delirium. He finally begins to regain consciousness in an army hospital. The nurses tell him that the war is over and that his leg has been amputated. They believe that he is Elijah, and that Xavier died in the battle. Overwhelmed by pain and grief, Xavier frequently asks the nurses for morphine. He realizes that since he put Elijah’s ID tag in his pocket and threw his own on the field before the battle, no one will believe him when he claims he’s Xavier. He decides to pretend to be Elijah as his own way of keeping Elijah alive. A nurse with a pretty mouth takes care of him, giving him morphine whenever he asks.

One day, Xavier is told to return home. He is put in a wheelchair, and the nurse gives him a packet of morphine syringes to take with him. On the ship back home, officers continuously visit Xavier, praising him as a war hero; Xavier wonders when they will discover that he is not Elijah. He uses morphine to get through the nights when he feels Elijah coming to haunt him.

Niska creates a sweat lodge to help Xavier make it through his withdrawal pains. She pours water on hot rocks inside the lodge and prays to the manitous for Xavier’s survival. After their first round inside, they lie outside on the cool ground and breathe deeply. In their second round, Niska sees visions of the war’s destruction. In their third round, the now almost-burning air of the lodge quickly grows painful, and Niska suffers from a panic attack. She remembers her father’s words to her when she first went inside the sweat lodge, regaining her composure. Xavier moans and cries in pain, and Niska fears for his life, but also knows that the use of the sweat lodge is the last resort and that without her efforts Xavier will die. Niska feels Elijah’s spirit enter the lodge and hears Xavier apologize to Elijah for killing him. He says that it is not his place to forgive Elijah for everything he did during the war. Niska embraces Elijah’s presence, and his spirit leaves the lodge.

Niska and Xavier crawl out of the lodge and lie on the ground, their skin reddened from the steam. After resting for a moment, they crawl back into the sweat lodge for a final round. While inside, Niska has a vision into the future of two young boys playing by the riverbank, watched over by a protective figure. They leave the lodge again, resting by the riverbank. Niska stares at the night sky and thinks of her father. Then she rises and helps dress Xavier. While sitting by the fire with Xavier, she watches the coming dawn, listens to the animal sounds, and looks at the river. Tomorrow, Niska thinks, she and Xavier will be home.


In many respects, these sections represent a return to childhood—the kind of childhood that Xavier never actually had, marked by nurturing. Niska feeds Xavier the way one would feed a helpless baby animal, softening food in her own mouth to provide a form of sustenance that the heavily weakened Xavier can manage to eat. The nurses provide comfort to Xavier as he suffers from commingled physical and emotional scars. In the end, they even seem to give too much comfort, administering morphine with enough generosity to foster Xavier’s addiction and giving him extra syringes to facilitate his continued use out of the hospital. In contrast, Niska’s story about Xavier’s youth depicts a far different kind of childhood, one marked by precocious hunting talent and maturity. From the age of six, Xavier displayed a high level of independence; although Niska cared for him in many ways, she never nurtured him the way an infant receives care.

In other respects, these sections take a drastic turn from caretaking, exploring the final conflict between Xavier and Elijah. Xavier’s murder of his friend exemplifies the theme of circularity in the book—Niska’s father killed a windigo, so Niska learned how to kill a windigo, so Xavier learned how to kill a windigo. The accumulation of Elijah’s atrocities, as well as Xavier’s growing sense that he has a duty to end his friend’s madness, lend a sense of inevitability to Xavier’s act. At the same time, Xavier’s decision to end Elijah’s life is marked by deep care for his friend and a penetrating sadness. This seems to be less like grief for the loss of Elijah’s physical existence than it is mourning for Elijah’s true spirit, for the way he was before the war consumed him.

Representative of an overarching theme throughout the book, these sections exemplify the devastation brought about by war. The endless violence and sickening conditions of trench warfare have made Xavier miserable for his entire time in the army; but the man-against-man construct of war itself has utterly destroyed Elijah. Successfully killing Germans offered Elijah a path to become a hero, but ultimately turned against him as he began to see violence as an end rather than a means. His descent into insanity was fueled by drug use, the effect of others' racism, competition for recognition both within the army and by other First Nations people after the war, and jealous competition among the soldiers and officers. His efforts to prove his superiority to the Canadian officers and French soldiers were a formula for madness. In the end, both Elijah and Xavier were ruined by the war.

The novel ends on a bittersweet note, as Xavier seems to be physically healed, but the emotional weight of the war remains heavy on his shoulders. However, he does seem to reach some level of acceptance, acknowledging that it is not “his place” to forgive Elijah, and his embrace with Niska is symbolic of hope for the future. There are still many unanswered questions about what their life will look like from now on—since it will be more difficult for Xavier to live in the bush now that he must use crutches. But the final image, in which Niska takes in the sounds and smells of the forest and thinks of home, is an uplifting one. Both Niska and Xavier have experienced unimaginable loss and struggle, as well as joy and contentment, but the past is undeniably over. In its final sentence, the novel turns toward the future: tomorrow, Niska and Xavier will be home.