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Inspired by a forgotten hero "Three Day Road"

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Inspired by a forgotten hero

By REBECCA CALDWELL

Thursday, May 12, 2005 Updated at 8:35 AM EDT

Globe and Mail Update

People keep telling Canadian author Joseph Boyden that his novel Three Day Road was the book he was meant to write. While pleased, Boyden finds the comments unsettling, since his book is only his debut novel -- albeit a debut novel that pitted publishers against each other in a bidding war that bumped the manuscript's price tag up to six figures.

"It's actually a bit frightening. I hope I have another book I'm meant to write, but it's so true," Boyden said during a recent interview while he was in Toronto for an appearance at the Harbourfront International Reading Series. "It deals with all the different parts of me and where I come from."

Three Day Road is the story of Cree snipers Xavier Bird and Elijah Weesageechak, who served in the Canadian Army during the First World War.

The author's father, Lieutenant-Colonel Raymond Wilfrid Boyden, was a decorated Second World War veteran, a front-line doctor who served through the entire Italian campaign and the liberation of the Netherlands, earning a Distinguished Service Order for one particularly brutal stretch that saw him rescuing troops on foot under enemy fire.

And then there is Boyden's "core of who I am," as he puts it. He describes himself as part Métis, specifically Ojibwa. Growing up in Toronto, he would spend summers on reserves on Georgian Bay; he later taught on reserves near James Bay. Although it is part of his heritage, Boyden is quick to make clear that his own experience is not much like the majority of native Canadians.

"I didn't grow up on a reserve. I didn't go through the poverty that many native Canadians and Americans do, and I didn't have to deal with a lot of the horrible issues that native Canadians are facing, so part of me says, no you are not Indian, it would be wrong to say that," he says. "But then again, I've donated a large part of my life to native causes, to teaching on native reserves, to studying native religions."

Three Day Road was inspired by a real-life man whose legend is still alive on the reserves. Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa from the Parry Island Band, was a crack shot during the First World War, with 378 kills to his name and numerous decorations. When he returned home, he would later become chief of his reserve, but his war record was completely forgotten by white Canadians. In the 1920s, for instance, Boyden says Pegahmagabow requested a loan to buy some horses, but the Indian agent on his reserve asked him why he should be trusted with the live animals.

In part, Three Day Road serves as a wake-up call to all those who may be woefully unaware of how Canada's war effort benefited from the native contribution -- such as the fact that native Canadians often volunteered at a rate three times that of the white population. "I couldn't believe there's never been a book, fiction or otherwise, about the native involvement in World War I, or II, or Korea, about their great sacrifice. And coming from a line of veterans, it's just part of my makeup," Boyden says. "It wasn't my goal to write a revisionist history. I was writing from my passion, but if it can have any effect, that makes me happy."

Boyden has other reasons to be happy. His first book, a collection of short stories called Born With a Tooth, was released to some acclaim in 2001, but the reception to Three Day Road has so far been phenomenal. The book has been sold into an impressive 10 countries so far, and reviews have been almost unanimously glowing. The Globe and Mail's reviewer T. G. Rigelhof predicted it could replace Timothy Findley's book The Wars as Canada's great Great War novel, called it "gripping, wrenching, eye-opening, illuminating, stirring, moral (not moralistic) fiction. . . . This novel is a remarkable achievement, and a breathtaking debut."

Boyden, a polite, unassuming 38-year-old, seems shell-shocked by the attention.

"I spent five years in this kind of bubble, in my own little head, so it's amazing to me that I enter out of this kind of inner world and things have gone . . . ," he trails off.

The third youngest of 11 children, Boyden rhymes off family member after family member who makes their living in the arts -- one uncle is a sculptor, sister Claire is a concert pianist who played Carnegie Hall -- but the majority of the Boydens teach, including the author. He and his wife, Amanda Boyden, teach writing courses at the University of New Orleans, where Boyden earned an MFA in creative writing. And although he counts Canadian authors Robertson Davies and Michael Ondaatje, and Americans Jim Harrison and Louise Erdrich among his influences, he reserves his highest praise for writer Bruce Powe, one of his instructors while he was an undergrad at York University in Toronto.

"I always knew I wanted to do two things in my life, to be a professor and to be a writer," said Boyden.

"I didn't choose writing as much as writing chose me. I loved reading. I used to read encyclopedias and just devoured books. It just kind of very naturally happened that writing became a very important part of me," he continued. "And I love teaching and I find that my teaching, when I'm not doing too much of it, really feeds off my writing well. . . . I know it sounds really cheesy, but I come from a family that loves to help and teach and pass on their knowledge of something specific if someone wants it -- I've never been able to stop myself if somebody wants the help."

Now at work on a novel that revisits Xavier's and Elijah's families, Boyden doesn't know if he would ever give up teaching should Three Day Road push his reputation as a writer into the stratosphere. One of the joys of his job is that he is able to take Canadian literature to America's south, and elsewhere. One of the courses he runs saw authors Nino Ricci, Michael Winter, Noah Richler and others participate in international on-line forum discussions with his students.

"My students, American and Europeans, would e-mail me: 'I was just amazed. I would never have considered this Canadian literature. I've never read enough and now I'm going to read more.' " said Boyden. "It kills me how good Canadian literature is today and I don't know if Canadians know what they have just with the sheer number of authors per capita, so to speak, all of these new voices over the last number of years."

Read the first chapter of Three Day Road on-line at http://www.globeandmail.com/bookclub.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20050512.wxboyden12/BNStory/Entertainment/
 

Maelstrom

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I would highly recommend this book. It is very engaging and personal, the details really bring the story to life.
 
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