Windigo in the First World War
Joseph Boyden highlights the forgotten contribution of First Nations's people in Three Day Road
BRIAN BETHUNE | May 30, 2005
The war gripped Canadian authors from the start -- 40, mostly forgettable novels were written during the conflict and its immediate aftermath -- and never let up. For decades afterwards, important books like Timothy Findley's The Wars(1977)continued to appear. And the Great War haunts us still. In the past few years major writers have turned to it again, at an increasing rate, often exploring new aspects of the Canadian war experience. Broken Ground(1998)was set after the fighting and far from the front, on Vancouver Island, where discharged soldiers try to make a go of farming the unpromising plots provided by the federal government. But Jack Hodgins' book remains very much a war novel: the futility of the veterans' labours parallels the conflict itself. In 2001 Jane Urquhart's The Stone Carvers offered a sweeping and poignant vision of the totality of the war's effects on Canada, revolving around two talented wood carvers: Klara Becker, a stay-at-home spinster who loses her lover to the fighting, and her wandering brother, Tilman, who loses a leg at Vimy Ridge.Now Joseph Boyden, in a First World War novel as good as anyone's, has brought the almost forgotten First Nations' contribution to the fore in Three Day Road, about Cree snipers Xavier Bird and Elijah Weesageechak. The dual-track story emerges from the memories of Xavier and his old aunt and only relative, Niska, one of the last of her people to live entirely off the land. After the war, Niska takes her wounded nephew home to the bush. Their three-day canoe trip from the railway station parallels the Ojibway belief in the the soul's three-day journey from the body to the spirit world. Both provide the the novel with its title. The story of Xavier and Elijah at war, and other tales told by Niska -- who believes, like Boyden, that there is healing in stories -- unfolds along the way.
The novel is partly a tribute to Francis Pegahmagabow, a real-life Ojibway sniper who survived the war intact and with a second bar for his m ilitary medal(one of only 38 men with that honour). He also registered an extraordinary record of 378 enemy kills. That's certainly something worth restoring to the national memory, especially for Boyden, who is acutely attuned to the native strand in his ancestry. And to his own warrior heritage. Boyden's father was the most decorated Canadian doctor of the Second World War, a man who served throughout the Italian and Dutch campaigns, winning a DSO for rescuing troops under enemy fire.(A much older uncle fought in the 1914 to 1918 conflict.)
But most important to his way of viewing the world, Boyden says, is the "big part played in my life by the small part of my ancestry that's Native." Part Metis, Boyden grew up in Toronto, but spent his childhood summers on or near Georgian Bay, Ont. reserves. "I was raised on stories about Pegahmagabow. He's very much alive in Ontario Ojibway communities, especially Parry Island, where he was from. I knew early on Pegahmagabow's sniper total exceeded that of anyone else on record in any war."
Boyden also heard stories of Windigo -- Ojibway tales of lost hunters or people trapped too long in famine conditions who either become Windigoes or are inhabited by a Windigo spirit and turn to violence and cannibalism. Once they cross that line, Windigoes can never shake their desire for human flesh even after returning to civilization and normal eating, and are ever after a danger to the rest of humankind. It's hard to imagineIf there's a better metaphor for what happened to many who served on the Western Front. "I want to explore Windigo in a psychological way," Boyden says, "and ask the question 'What is the boundary of right and wrong in a place like Flanders?' "
One of Boyden's snipers -- the one who, crucially, had not had his sense of self or his essential cultural heritage broken to pieces by a residential school -- comes through the madness morally intact, if broken in body and spirit. The other, not so fortunate in childhood, does not. "Elijah is greedy for success as a sniper -- and the Windigo tales are classic warnings about greed," Boyden agrees. "So he crosses that line into inhumanity," becoming, in fact, what the army, the war and the entire insane situation propels him toward.
The extraordinary richness of Boyden's material, both in the forgotten history recovered and his electric metaphors, would have sufficed for a noteworthy book. But his poetic, occasionally hypnotic, prose, vivid characters and narrative drive make it a moving work of art, one of the finest novels in an already rich national tradition.