Book Analysis Mental Health

Trauma, Storytelling and Healing in Three Day Road

How does storytelling heal trauma in Three Day Road?

 I explore the way Joseph Boyden uses storytelling to heal trauma in Three Day Road.

Three Day Road illustrates the atrocities of World War One and the effects that they have on the Cree people of Canada. In the novel Boyden illustrates the therapeutic journey protagonist Xavier Bird goes through, from the trauma he experiences from World War One to how he is able to recollect his story and move towards healing. It examines Xavier’s relationship with himself and mental health as he endures a loss of innocence and violent traumatic experiences. He undergoes depression, a loss of self and becomes something “other than human”. Xavier is able to work through his trauma by the recollection and retelling of his story, facilitated by the remedial storytelling of his aunt Niska. This cathartic voyage allows Xavier to release his pain and find absolution.

Xavier experiences a great amount of trauma that leads to his depression. When Xavier first goes to war, he starts off as innocent because he is inexperienced. His understandings of killing in the past were primarily with hunting wild animals for survival. Xavier said about his duties of being a soldier in the beginning, “It is just like hunting, I think. It is hunting…I am made for this, I think to myself,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 86). Xavier is still innocent here because he does not fully recognize the horrific violence he is about to face and the acts he must commit as part of the duties of being a soldier. He does not know that his feelings towards the war will change dramatically as he gains more experience.

Xavier is traumatized by the events of the war, which his aunt Niska recognizes as an illness. She said, “What happened over there has wrecked him,” and “This is a sickness I’ve not had to face before,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 34).  Niska realizes that the sickness Xavier is inflicted with goes beyond just his physical body; he is psychologically ill.

Xavier loses his innocence after he kills a man for the first time. He replays this event “over and over” in his head and is unable to sleep after killing someone for the first time (Boyden, 2005, p. 75), indicating that the experience was meaningful and upsetting for him. Killing a person for the first time was the initial traumatic moment for Xavier. However, he encountered many, yet the most striking events are those in which Xavier witnessed brutal scenes of death. These gory scenes encircled Xavier more and more as the war progressed.  One of the first scenes is illustrated as such:

“Arms stick up from the pool of water, some curled like they are grasping something I cannot see…Besides the limbs, rotted faces peek over at us. I see the eye sockets are empty and their lips have pulled back from their open mouths so that they look like they’re screaming…I feel like I’m going to be sick,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 70).

This scene, which Xavier observed, is extraordinarily gruesome, and puts the readers into the shoes of the main character who is sickened by it, so we in turn feel revolted. This is an example of “abject” writing, which is when the subject of literature makes us uncomfortable, disgusted or even scared.

Another example of a gruesome, traumatic scene is when Xavier sees a “soldier’s head exploding” which makes his stomach churn (Boyden, 2005, p. 88). These passages of abjection in Three Day Road are prime descriptions of the traumatic experiences Xavier faced. They are significant because they permit us to experience Xavier’s trauma vicariously.

Xavier expressed the suffering of the war in a long passage:

“But especially I will tell the elders how after a shell attack life returns to normal so fast, how one’s mind does not allow him to dwell on the horror of violent death, for it will drive him mad if he lets it,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 84).

Xavier is broaching what it is like to experience trauma in this passage. When a person suffers something that is horrific, they are able to move on in the moment because their mind prevents them from dwelling on the traumatic event. What Xavier describes is a coping mechanism. If this coping mechanism were not in place, he would be unable to survive the trauma without being “driven mad”.

One of the most powerful traumatizing moments is when Xavier kills Elijah, who was his best and only friend since childhood.

“How long have I stayed there, straddling my friend, staring down as my tears leave streaks in the dirt and blood of his dead face? Finally, I sit back and grasp my knees, rock slowly as the shells scream in and explode all around me. My friend lies still, arms stretched out from his body as if he welcomes the sky,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 370).

This moment is piercing. To kill Elijah was an act that Elijah felt obliged to do. Yet throughout the book he struggles with what to do about Elijah, who had become extremely mentally unwell during the war.

Elijah exhibited traits of the windigo, which is described as “people who eat other people’s flesh and grow into wild beasts twenty feet tall whose hunger can be satisfied only by more human flesh and then the hunger turns worse,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 44). Xavier was destined to be a “windigo killer” because this responsibility ran in his family line; his aunt Niska was also a windigo killer. Windigo killers must end the life of the person who had turned windigo so they would not continue infecting the community or killing people.

Xavier said about Elijah, “To me he is mad. I am the only one now to know Elijah’s secrets, and Elijah has turned into something invincible, something inhuman,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 348). Xavier understands that Elijah has become sick from the war, but the illness has gone beyond what he believes can be cured. Elijah had become inhuman in the acts of murder and cannibalism he had committed. Xavier knew he must kill Elijah to prevent him from bringing more suffering and sickness to the community. Despite the fact that he knew he must end Elijah’s life, Xavier is still traumatized and flooded with guilt from this gut wrenching act.

The traumatic experiences of the war caused Xavier to lose his sense of self and he became something “other than human”. If Xavier were to be a war veteran alive today, he might be diagnosed with depression, anxiety and feasibly, post-traumatic stress disorder. Boyden describes Xavier’s experience of mental illness as becoming more than human.

As an illustration of his becoming “more than human”, Xavier expressed feelings of invisibility often throughout the book. Xavier began to feel more and more invisible as the war progressed, especially as Elijah became obsessed with killing and became known as a war hero. Xavier doesn’t get recognition for his skills and talents. He said, “I become more invisible. A brown ghost,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 65.) Xavier referred to himself as a ghost on various occasions. When a person feels that they are invisible and like a ghost, they are feeling disconnected from their sense of self. They may also feel isolated from society because they feel that others cannot see them, or that they are not respected.

Xavier also became fairly silent during the war, and the others around him accepted his silence as Xavier having poor English. However, his silence demonstrates that he was experiencing depression and anxiety, because he shielded himself from communication with others.

Xavier also experienced difficulty sleeping. He taught himself to dream with “eyes open” (Boyden, 2005, p. 79) and also experienced a “half-sleep lying there below the earth’s surface with the dead,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 70). Sleeping problems indicate that he was experiencing anxiety and perhaps insomnia, which in a vicious cycle could intensify mental health issues. Furthermore, because Xavier expressed becoming like a ghost, the fact that he is sleeping below the earth’s surface with the dead is apt with the theme that he is becoming something other than a human.

“The world feels unreal, like it is not me but someone pretending to be me walking the front-line trench and not caring,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 308). This passage describes the depersonalization Xavier experiences, which is when the external world doesn’t feel real, and the sufferer feels disconnected from their physical body. That is why Xavier feels like it is not himself on the trench-line, but someone “pretending” to be him.

Xavier coped with some of the trauma and pain of the war through his love of the land. During the voyage on the ship to England from Canada, Xavier found comfort with nature. Boyden (2005) wrote “Elijah visits me and sees that I am so sick I can barely stand, but still I stay with the wretched animals, trying to calm them. I feel comfort with animals. They make me feel closer to land,” (p. 183). This is significant because being with the horses allowed him to manage the turbulent crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

When Xavier is in three days confinement under the watch of a medic, he finds entertainment and solace in watching a barn swallow that made a nest there. “I watch her work and it is the comfort of the bush that wraps around me. The bird reminds me of home,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 257). Thinking of “the bush” or nature brought comfort to Xavier because it made him feel at home. This permits Xavier to focus on something external rather than on his distressing thoughts brought on by the war.     

Xavier experiences catharsis with the storytelling of Niska and his own recollection/retelling of his story. While nature aids Xavier to cope in the moment, Xavier is only able to move towards healing with Niska’s help. Niska’s storytelling is therapeutic for Xavier because it allows him to relive his experiences and emotions in a vicarious way. Her stories help him recollect blocked memories and feelings. This slowly aids Xavier on his road to recovery as he unlocks key emotions and experiences. This “unlocking” of Xavier’s story permits him to release his pain and guilt.

Richard Kearney (2007) says that:

“Myths enable us to experience certain otherwise inexperienced experiences – that is, events that were too painful to be properly registered at the time but which can, après coup, be allowed into expression indirectly, fictionally, ‘as if’ they were happening,” (p. 54-55).

Kearney is discussing the power that stories can have in helping to register and work through traumatic moments. Kearney (2007) also points out that with traumatic experiences we can use “narratives which represent the traumatic event in a vicarious fashion. We thereby permit a certain genuine mourning anguish that can be worked through and appropriated,” (p. 56). The use of narrative for Xavier essentially enables him to revisit repressed emotions and experiences, which in turn eventually allows catharsis to happen.

Stories and storytelling in Three Day Road are akin to a healing medicine one might take for a physical illness. With each story that Niska “feeds” Xavier, he is one step closer to experiencing catharsis.

According to Richard Kearney (2007), “catharsis invites us a) beyond a pathology of pity to compassion and b) beyond a pathology of fear to serenity. It literally purges two of our most basic affects – pathos and eleos – until they are distilled and sublimated into a healing brew,” (p. 52). Catharsis for Xavier, in this sense, means that he is able to have compassion for himself and Elijah, as well as to experience peace rather than being fearful of the past.

Niska’s father was a “great talker”, or one who tells stories. Niska told Xavier that sometimes her father’s stories were all they had to keep them alive (Boyden, 2005, p. 34-35). This is important because it highlights the extraordinary power of storytelling.

Niska’s first story about her childhood and father, who is a windigo killer, acts almost as a warning to the readers and Xavier of what he must face. The final line of the first story Niska told said, “War touches everyone, and windigos spring from the earth,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 49). This allows Xavier and the readers to see that someone may become windigo in the story.

Towards the end of the book, Niska tells another story about windigos. She said, “The story is not a happy one, but something in me has to tell it. There is truth in this story that Xavier needs to hear,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 259). This quote is significant because Niska points out that though the story is not an easy one or happy one, it is necessary for Xavier to hear it, for him to heal. The story that Niska tells is about Xavier witnessing a windigo killing. This story is crucial to Xavier’s catharsis because it helps him realize that he had to kill Elijah.

Furthermore, a moment of understanding and compassion occurs when Niska tells this story. Niska, telling Xavier about the windigo killing:
“An aura as bright to me as the North Lights pulsed from within it with a great sadness. I realized then that sadness was at the heart of the
windigo, a sadness so pure that it shriveled the human heart and let something else grow in its place,” (Boyden, 2005, p. 261).

This passage describes the mental illness that occurs in the person who became windigo, specifically speaking of the depression and sadness that they suffer from. I believe that it is this story that helps Xavier come to terms with Elijah’s illness.

Xavier finds absolution with the help of Niska in the matatosowin. It is there that he is able to ask for forgiveness for killing Elijah in the war.

“‘Ponenimin,’ Nephew says. ‘Forgive me. I had no choice.’ He speaks more, says ponenimin again for killing his friend over there in that place…Over the murmur of hot stones Nephew whispers goodbye to his friend…” (Boyden, 2005, p. 380-381). It is in this moment, when Xavier receives pardon for the acts he committed during the war, and when he experiences true catharsis.

Three Day Road explores the effects of trauma that World War One had on Xavier Bird, and illustrates this using abject writing. Boyden highlights the power of storytelling and of expressing one’s story; specifically he delves into the way that stories can help trauma victims heal and overcome their pain. Catharsis is a major theme, and Xavier Bird is able to achieve it through the help of his Aunt Niska’s storytelling. It is the stories that heal Xavier Bird, and enable him to ask for forgiveness for killing his friend Elijah.

Sources Cited

Boyden, J. (2005). Three-day road: A novel. Toronto: Viking Canada.

Kearney, R.(2007). Narrating Pain: The Power of Catharsis. Paragraph 30(1), 51-66. Edinburgh University Press. Retrieved July 19, 2014, from Project MUSE database.


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