The River and the Road: A Close Reading of Joseph Boyden's "Three Day Road"
In Joseph Boyden’s “Three Day Road” Xavier’s pain and his aunt Niska’s subsequent sympathetic suffering force the institution of several coping mechanisms – cultural or nostalgic acts that are meant to be healing agents. Perhaps the most obvious of these is Niska’s storytelling, something she does constantly in the hopes that Xavier will somehow understand and return to her from the brink of his despair. There is, however, another healing agent, one that, unlike the storytelling, does not originate in either Niska or Xavier but is instead accessed by them in their times of need. This quiet but seemingly always-present entity, the one on which Niska and Xavier rely so heavily, their path, their ultimate healer, their three day road, is the river.
The river is of obvious significance to Niska And Xavier during the interspersed, lucid, present moments we witness as they slowly paddle their way back home. Their river journey will take three days, which, as aforementioned, corresponds to the idea of the “three day road”, the passage from life into death, which immediately imbues the river with huge spiritual significance as it mirrors the sacred transition of the spirit from one plane to another. In fact, near the climax of Xavier’s morphine withdrawal and physical suffering, he “crawl[s] into the canoe to escape” the pain – rather than lying still on dry land, he desperately returns to the vessel that allows him access to the river (364). It is unclear whether Xavier is simply seeking out the familiar, soothing water or if he is, in his distress, looking for the spiritual three day road that the river parallels, looking for death. Either way, this helps to demonstrate the immense connection between these two characters and the river during times of need.
This connection to the river is perhaps even more apparent and important in regards to Niska, especially when considering the passage starting at the top of page 174 (beginning with “[h]e laughed”) and ending towards the bottom of page 175 (“the world around me a fresh and clean place again”). This passage begins immediately after Niska has her final sexual encounter with the Frenchman – one that for her was an act of love and for him was some twisted act of greed, sexism, and racism. He tells her that he “took [her] ahcahk… [and] fucked [her] spirit” (174). Niska is sent almost into a blind panic and feels her “guts churn” and realizes she needs to escape, running from the church where the encounter has taken place and into the night (174). When she hears the Frenchman’s “boots approaching [she]… reache[s] for [her] knife” only to discover that she is not wearing it “with these white clothes” (174). Realizing she cannot defend herself against him, she runs “as fast as [she can] toward the river” as if it is her last salvation, her only means of escape. Once there, Niska appears to have outrun the Frenchman, something that gives a very vivid sense of the river as sanctuary. She instinctually feels the need to enter the water, fearing that the Frenchman “had killed [her] family’s fire inside [her] (174). Interestingly enough, the river water poses no threat to this “fire” but is in fact compatible with it, perhaps can even help to illuminate it. Niska, “[f]alling on all fours… [drinks] deeply from the river to ease the burning in [her] throat and the pounding in [her] head” (175). Not only does Niska enter the river during a particularly vulnerable moment of fear and anguish, but she also requires it for the relief of her corporal symptoms of illness. In this way the river is a distinctly tangible, physical method of healing.
The river’s healing capabilities are not simply limited to soothing Niska’s physical ailments in that moment, but also later participate in a very intimate, sacred act of renewal for her. After Niska escapes, leaving the Frenchman and his town behind (escaping, of course, via her canoe on the river), she “knew what to do… and carefully constructed a lodge according to [her] father’s directions” (175). She creates a sweat lodge, something of great spiritiual significance and healing both for Niska and the Cree people, and it is only after this ceremony that Niska achieves “purification”, “and the world… [is] fresh and clean… again” (175). Of course, one of the most vital elements of the sweat lodge is the steam, created by pouring water (taken, in this case, from the river) over hot stones, stones that Niska “carefully [chose] from the riverbank” (175). It is only by utilizing resources from the river that Niska is able to summon the spirits and eventually heal, just as it is only possible years later to summon Elijah’s ghost and gain forgiveness and healing for her nephew, Xavier, by using stones and water from that very same river in the same type of ceremony.
The significance here is very clear, especially when considering that in a passage of less than two pages, the word “river” appears in some form or other eight times. In Niska’s time of need, in her time of pain, the river is a force that both comforts her and facilitates her escape, and later goes on to dominate her word choice, cropping up numerous times in her story to Xavier, a story being something that, like the river itself, can heal. In this sense the river takes on a double role as healer – it acted as such during the episode the Niska recounts, and is also now part of a larger healing narrative aimed at Xavier, therefore its effects are felt simultaneously by Niska through her memory and by Xavier during the story. Niska’s stories are meant to comfort and strengthen Xavier, and by choosing to tell her nephew about a time when the river helped to heal her, so too does it help to heal Xavier through the retelling. The river’s role as provider, protecter, spiritual salvation, and healer, is subtly present throughout the novel, but it is starkly, wonderfully clear in Niska’s story as recounted in the chosen passage, and is something that has immense impact on the lives and journeys of both Niska and her nephew.