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Joseph Boyden

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Way of the warrior

Joseph Boyden brings new voice to First World War epic

Joseph Boyden

Growing up in Willowdale, Ontario, in the 1970s, Joseph Boyden was a typical little boy. He loved the outdoors, and along with his seven siblings would play war games and cowboys and Indians and roughhouse in the schoolyard next door. They would chase the goats that their father, an old-fashioned doctor, occasionally accepted as payment for his medical services.

Less typically, Boyden was also a voracious early reader. By the time he was six, he was making his way through the family’s Encyclopaedia Britannica, volume by volume, pausing now and then over a topic that held his attention. A few years later he discovered fiction. S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders, about a group of teenaged outcasts, started him thinking about a career in writing.

But the stories he loved best were the true ones about his father, a Second World War military hero. A medical officer renowned for his bravery, Raymond Wilfrid Boyden was awarded the Distinguished Service Order – he was the highest-decorated medical officer of the war. “My father left a big legacy for all of us,” Boyden says. “He was a frontline doctor who put his life on the line throughout Italy and Holland. He died when I was only eight. It was the greatest trauma of my life. I feel that I have always been searching for him, always wondering who he was.”

Raymond Boyden was not the only soldier in the family. Joseph’s maternal grandfather, as well as an uncle on his father’s side, had served in the First World War, and Boyden draws upon this fund of family stories for his first novel, Three-Day Road. The book is a mesmerizing tale of two young Cree men who volunteer for that war and become snipers.

Joseph Boyden is 38 years old. He teaches Canadian literature and creative writing at the University of New Orleans and splits his time between Louisiana and Canada, which remains home to his mother and most of his siblings, as well as his 14-year-old son Jacob, who lives in Toronto with his mother. Boyden has been married for nine years to an American who’s also a writer; Amanda Boyden’s first novel, Pretty Little Dirty, will be released by Vintage U.S. next year.

Boyden has published one previous book, the 2001 short-story collection Born with a Tooth. Most of the stories unfold on reserves and examine the joys and tribulations of native life. (Boyden’s ancestry is partly native.) The book was well received, but readers may not be prepared for the transformative, history-shaping power of Three-Day Road, which hits bookstores next month. The novel was inspired by the life of Ojibwa Francis Pegahmagabow, the legendary First World War sniper. It’s told partly from the perspective of Xavier Bird, a Cree soldier who returns to Northern Ontario after the war, wounded in body, crushed in spirit, and addicted to morphine. Xavier is met in Moose Factory, Ontario, by his aunt Niska, and as she paddles him back to her home in the bush, he recalls the bloody experiences of the war. Meanwhile Niska attempts to keep him alive by narrating her own life story. The novel encompasses a myriad of themes, the motif of death being foremost, and it parallels the brutal massacre known as the first modern war and the destruction of native culture with subtle poignancy.

Boyden first submitted the novel to agent Nicole Winstanley of Westwood Creative Artists in June 2003, just before he headed to Madrid to teach a summer course. But feeling a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction, he later called Winstanley and asked her to hold off on reading the book. Throughout that fall, Boyden painstakingly rewrote the novel, then resubmitted it in mid-December.

Winstanley was completely enamoured of the book. By early January she had agreed to represent him; by mid-January she was entertaining offers. “The response to the book was immediate and passionate – unusually fast,” she says. Suitors included Knopf Canada, Thomas Allen Publishers, Doubleday Canada, McClelland & Stewart, and Cormorant Books, which had published Boyden’s story collection. By the end of January, Three-Day Road had sold to Penguin Canada for a six-figure sum. “Penguin won out because they offered an impressive two-book deal and could bring the book out quickly,” says Winstanley. “They also presented an extraordinary marketing plan.”

Two months later, the Three-Day Road manuscript went on to attract enormous attention at the London Book Fair. To date it has sold to publishers in eight foreign territories: the U.S., the U.K., Brazil, Catalonia, France, Holland, Italy, and Spain.

The novel was the first major Canadian acquisition for Penguin Canada publisher David Davidar, who had just taken over the post with an explicit mandate to boost the house’s sagging fiction profile. (Unlike Canadian divisions of other international firms, such as Random House and HarperCollins, Penguin Canada has never been nominated for a Giller Prize.) “There was a time,” says Davidar, “that Penguin came to emphasize great literary fiction. And then there was a time that we didn’t. We are now moving again toward that goal, and Three-Day Road by Joe Boyden is a prime example of what we are seeking to acquire and publish.” Adds Barbara Berson, a senior editor at Penguin who was also involved in signing Boyden: “David’s arrival has given us the mandate to do what is required to get those excellent Canadian novels.”

Accordingly, Penguin’s marketing plan for Three-Day Road is ambitious. An unusually large number of advance reading copies went out early to booksellers and media. Already Boyden has been brought up from New Orleans a number of times to address sales audiences and do media interviews. After the official April 23 publication, he’ll visit Winnipeg and Montreal and meet national media in Toronto. He’ll also read at Toronto’s Harbourfront Reading Series and is being strongly touted for the major fall festivals.

Like Three-Day Road, some of the 20th century’s finest novels examine the historical significance of the Great War: Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, Pat Barker’s Regeneration, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Timothy Findley’s The Wars. As a unifying national tragedy and the event that marked our coming of age in the western world, the conflict has provided contextual backdrop for scores of Canadian novels. This is less than pleasing for some younger authors – Boyden’s peers – who blame the motif in part for the famously dour spirit of Canadian letters.

Still, the war has never been depicted the way it is in Three-Day Road, as a conflict between native and European culture and values. Boyden also argues that the native story has gone missing from Canadian chronicles of war, especially given that so many native men signed up to fight. “Native soldiers are not recognized for their accomplishments. When you look at the number of native soldiers that actually volunteered for World War I and World War II, it is an incredibly high rate. Oftentimes full reserves were cleared of eligible aged men.” He has his own theories as to why. “You must also remember that 1914, ’15, and ’16 was a very low, low point for native people. They had been forced onto the reserves not so long before. They had lost everything. They had lost touch with what they were … which often involved a warrior tradition.”

This is the case for Xavier and his best friend, Elijah, in Three-Day Road. Their life in the bush develops in them the very skills that allow them to excel as snipers. Both possess an uncanny ability to lie still for hours in their small machine-gun nests, awaiting the right moment to attack. Each can sense, without seeing, human presence. Especially in their moccasins, which they are sometimes permitted to wear, they stalk the enemy as silently as shadows. Yet while Elijah thrives on hunting men, Xavier despairs over the waste of human life.

There is Métis in Boyden’s ancestry, and his father’s Irish-Catholic family history also has some Micmac in the mix. But according to Boyden, these bloodlines represent two thin strands in a heritage that is mostly European. “Part of me is native,” he says, “and it’s a very important part. But I also identify strongly with my Irish roots and with my Scottish roots.”

Still, in conversation it is Boyden’s respect for native culture that most clearly comes across. “More and more over the last many years – really, all my life – I’ve had an Anishnabe vision of the world,” he says. “We have a way in the West of looking at man as the top of the food chain – we control the world. Well, the Ojibwe view is completely opposite: even rocks are higher on the scale than us, because you need a rock to build a fire. You need a rock to build a house. You need deer to eat. You need moose to eat. We are reliant on everything. But none of these things need to rely on us. We should be looking at ourselves as in debt to our natural world.”

Boyden’s respect for the natural world was instilled in him early by his father, who would close down his practice each summer so that he and his family could travel by boat to Georgian Bay. Later, as a quietly questioning student at Toronto’s Jesuit Brebeuf High School, Boyden decided to cut his hair into the style of a Mohawk. “You can imagine a kid with a Mohawk, the Iroquois warrior, wandering among the Jesuits in the halls of Brebeuf,” he says with a grin. “Brebeuf was tortured by the Iroquois and I was engaged in my own style of torture. I was gently asked to leave.”

At York University, Boyden studied creative writing, and later he worked at Northern College in Moosonee, Ontario. His job entailed travelling by bush plane, helicopter, Ski-Doo, or canoe up and down the west coast of James Bay. “I taught communications and general arts and sciences to students who were trying to get a college degree. They were all native students. It was an incredible experience,” he says. “It was life-changing.”

An avid traveller, with a particular affection for the American South – it is steeped in history, he says, the past come to life – Boyden enrolled, in 1992, in the MFA in creative writing program at the University of New Orleans, where he teaches today. It is this distance from home that enabled Boyden to write Three-Day Road. “I needed that psychic and geographical space in order to be able to step back and look at my country. Not as an American by any means, but as a Canadian – almost an expatriate, even though I love this country and did not leave it for any negative reasons. This country is such a part of who I am – I couldn’t live in the States and not be back all the time.”

Over the years Boyden has been absorbing native experience through a kind of osmosis, through his physical surroundings, his friendships, and his Anishnabe faith. (His Louisiana circle includes a number of Houma Indians with whom he practices native religion, occasionally visiting the sweat lodge.) And this immersion in native life may be responsible for the verisimilitude of the novel’s characters. Xavier’s aunt Niska is one example: it is impossible to believe that anyone other than a Cree woman – a spiritual leader, living alone and lonely in the Canadian bush – could be speaking her lines. Boyden calls the Niska sections “the easiest writing experience of my life. It was like another voice was being channelled through me.”

The war scenes featuring Xavier and Elijah presented a greater challenge. “You really torture yourself because there are so many things to check. You worry about historical accuracy.” In this he received critical support from James Steel, a Canadian historian whose books include 1989’s The Men Who Marched Away. After reading that book, Boyden contacted Steel and the two became great friends. “I could call and ask him, ‘Jim, what size shell would be used in a Ross rifle in 1916?’ Or, ‘Where would you join the Canadian army if you were to go to Toronto?’ And he would answer me back in paragraphs. He’s more than a historian for me. He’s really pushed me to write this novel the best I can.”

Boyden also travelled a couple of times to the battlefields of Belgium and France. He bicycled through Ypres and visited several Canadian cemeteries. “I sat for a long time and looked around and tried to imagine what it must have been like – these beautiful lush farm fields with hills and trees. During the war, the land was mud-pocked. Ypres was one of the worst places. People literally drowned in the mud. I also went to Vimy Ridge, which is unbelievably beautiful.

“It’s like a historical memory for me,” says Boyden. “I come from a long line of soldiers.”