Killing to Belong: The Windigo in Joseph Boyden’s “Three Day Road”

In Joseph Boyden’s novel “Three Day Road,” the windigo killer plays an important role within the central characters’ Cree community. Through their separate, individual experiences, both Niska and Xavier struggle to assert their place within this community through attempting to kill an augmented version of their own windigo. For Niska, her Frenchman lover represents this windigo in a metaphorical sense. Niska’s murder of the Frenchman is a blatant attempt to feel she belongs as a windigo killer in her community.

In her first story, Niska implicitly tells Xavier that she wants to fulfill the windigo killer role within her tribe. Niska first introduces herself as an outcast, who distinctly does not fit in with anyone. She is not akin with the other children, who think she is “damaged” and “crazy”(Boyden, 35), and feels “too young to be accepted by the adults”(46). Seemingly, Niska is only accepted and comforted by her father who she wants to “watch over” and “stay close to”(36). Even with the possibility of discovering the world for herself before her “first blood of womanhood,” Niska chooses to have “nothing of that” and instead “[stays] close to [her] father”(36). Because of her lack of self-discovery, her father very heavily influences Niska’s sense of self, including how she belongs within her tribe. This effect is most strongly demonstrated when Niska discovers her and her father belong to a lineage of windigo killers. This is done through example when Niska’s father allows her to watch as he suffocates Micah’s wife and child because they have consumed Micah’s flesh, and therefore turned windigo. Afterwards, he tells Niska that his identity within the tribe must become the role she assumes when he says, “’one day I will be gone and you might have to do the same’”(45). Because this is only told to Niska, this quotation concretely establishes that descendants of Niska’s family are the only ones who can fulfill this role within the community. Thus, the windigo killer role defines belonging within the tribe for Niska and members of her family. This quote is also important because it is the only time in the novel in which Niska’s father speaks directly to her. The fact that Niska recalls her father’s exact words in this moment speaks to the importance Niska places on honoring the windigo killer role in relation to her father. Niska expresses her desire to meet the expectation placed on members of her family when she says, “I desperately wanted to possess [his gifts] for myself”(46). This asserts that Niska desires the aforementioned sense of belonging that the windigo killer role will bring her. She witnesses that her father’s gifts allow the adults in the tribe to “[walk] with purpose”(46), and allows the color to return to the children’s faces. This gives another purpose to Niska’s desire to become a windigo killer, which is contributing to the collective health of the tribe. Niska feels she will be able to attain a position of belonging, and contribute to the wellbeing of the tribe if she emulates her father by killing a windigo.

Niska’s Frenchman-lover is a symbolic representation of Niska’s own windigo. The Frenchman is not a windigo as has been described previously in the novel. He does not “eat other people’s flesh” or “grow into [a] wild beast,”(44) but meets the description in a much less literal sense. Similar to a windigo consuming flesh, an organ sacred to the physical body, the Frenchman violently takes Niska’s “’ahcahk, [her] spirit’”(174), which is obviously very sacred to her metaphysical, spiritual body. Just as a windigo can “be satisfied only by more human flesh”(44), the Frenchman “’has a taste for red meat that he can’t satisfy”’(169). In this quotation, “red meat” is taken to mean having sex with Cree women and producing “little half-French, half-Indian children”(169). Both the windigo in the traditional Cree tale and the Frenchman have an insatiable appetite for consuming something that is sacred to another person. In the Frenchman’s case, he consumes sex with multiple Cree women, promising to take them “’to be his forever’”(173). This promise is a sacred act, but instead of committing to one woman, he produces multiple children “that he refuses to claim”(169). When Niska becomes a victim of his consumption, the Frenchman consumes two sacred pieces of Niska, one physical and one spiritual. As a result, he becomes an obvious target for Niska’s first windigo kill.

Niska’s murder of the Frenchman, then, is her first act as a windigo killer. Just before Niska goes to visit the Frenchman in town, she comes across “an old woman, [whose] face [is] as wrinkled and round as a dried apple”(168) who foreshadows Niska’s windigo killing. When the old woman says “’Happiness is not yours to have. You are a windigo killer,’”(169) she is alluding to Niska’s perceived happiness as the lover of the Frenchman and how that happiness will soon come to an end as Niska fulfills her role as a windigo killer. The old woman’s prediction is conceived when Niska “[asks the lynx] to go out and find the source of [her] hurt and extinguish it”(176). When she hears that the Frenchman “ran to the top storey of the hotel […] and flung himself through the window” because he “could not escape” the “pursuing demons,”(176) this prediction is realized. Niska purposefully uses her Cree spirituality (the lynx) to cause the Frenchman to go mad and kill himself, thus intending and committing her first windigo killing. The fact that Niska is not actually present when the windigo Frenchman dies is significant in comparison to the example set by her father. When Niska’s father kills Micah’s wife, he “[covers] her face with a blanket” and “[looks] up”(45), which is an obvious attempt to depersonalize the windigo as she dies. Similarly, by not physically going and killing the Frenchman herself, Niska is attempting to depersonalize him in death because of the “fear and anger”(175) thinking about him brings her. Finally, much like how Niska’s father’s windigo killing causes the tribe to feel a sense of peace because “something unwanted”(46) had left, Niska killing the Frenchman brings her “A sense of peace”(176). Because Niska’s murder of the Frenchman is intentional and committed in a similar manner as her fathers’ windigo killings, it is an obvious attempt to fulfill her generational role as a windigo killer within her community.

From the beginning of the novel, Niska clearly demonstrates how she wants to belong. Her concept of what it means to belong is heavily influenced by her father’s role as a windigo killer, as she witnesses how it allows him to contribute to the safety and security of the tribe. This, coupled with a lack of a sense of belonging as a child drives Niska to attempt to insert herself into her father’s role as a windigo killer. She does so for the first time in the novel by killing her Frenchman-lover. This extreme action is Niska’s attempt to meet the expectations her community places on descendants of her family and in doing so, find a sense of purpose and belonging within this community.

The Influence of War: Xavier, Elijah, and Their Conflict

There is no glory in war; it only tears relationships apart and nobody returns home unscathed. In Joseph Boyden’s novel Three Day Road, the true horrors and realities of war are revealed. Through the characters of Xavier and Elijah, the historical fiction demonstrates that war leads to conflict within one’s closest relations. Xavier and Elijah are the best of friends and share a great bond of brotherhood, however, the war brings out the worst in them. They are introduced to the western culture and become exposed to several addictive elements. The most devastating of all is morphine which causes Elijah to lose his morality. This leads to conflict between Xavier and Elijah because of their contrasting beliefs. Xavier is a much more traditional individual who resists the European influence whereas Elijah embraces it. This cross-cultural conundrum leads to disagreement within the two companions sparking their competitive nature. As the two battle out to determine who is the dominant figure, the influence of the war and European ideologies on the two are clearly demonstrated. Although Xavier and Elijah share a deep emotional bond, their relationship is slowly torn apart during the war through the use of morphine, feelings of jealousy, and the division of culture.

Addiction is a destructive disease which festers in individuals, simply shattering one’s sense and judgment. Throughout the war, Elijah becomes more and more attracted to morphine. This drug acts both as a sedative and steroid for Elijah, however, this advancement comes at a cost. Elijah becomes addicted to the drug and uses the morphine to escape from the war. The drug dulls his internal struggles. Even when Elijah is not in physical pain and the medicine is not necessary, his, “body screams out for the needle” (Boyden 337). He is unable to control his desire for the morphine which allures his sense of judgment. This is seen further when Elijah shoots the mother and her child without hesitation. Xavier becomes furious with Elijah’s and questions what the reasoning is for his actions, however, Elijah mildly responses by saying, “I didn’t know it was a child” (Boyden 306). The morphine has taken a hold on Elijah’s senses as he cannot understand his actions have consequences. This clash between Xavier’s and Elijah’s moral beliefs fuel the conflict they have with each other. As the plot is driven by their rivalry one can understand Xavier is very traditional, whereas Elijah is extremely western minded. Xavier’s disagreement with Elijah’s use of morphine sparks the beginning of their conflict through the cross-cultural conundrum.

Conflict arises as one’s cultural beliefs contradict others actions. Xavier and Elijah are in constant conflict with each other because of their differences in heritage. Xavier is raised by Niska in the bush and has developed Aboriginal beliefs and ideologies. Although Elijah is also of native descent, he is an orphan raised at a residential school. Elijah does not know if he belongs in native society or in the western society. The Europeans value the glory and successes of war whereas the natives prefer peace. Elijah desperately wants to fit in so he tries to prove himself to the other soldiers by going on a killing rampage. Xavier realizes that Elijah’s actions have led him to become “something invincible, something inhuman” (Boyden 348). Elijah starts to scalp people after a successful kill and even collect hair and body parts as trophies. His inhumane actions begin the awakening of his Windigo spirit. Elijah continues his killings for the glory, attention, and approval he receives which builds internal conflict with Xavier. Xavier is known to come from a “line of Windigo killers” (Boyden 348) and he struggles to uphold his family’s legacy. Although the signs are clear that Elijah has indeed transformed into a Windigo Xavier resists the temptation to end Elijah’s life because he values their friendship. Ultimately Elijah betrays Xavier by condemning to the Wendigo spirit to gain fame within the battalion. His actions identify the theme of how far people will go to fit into society. Elijah does not know where he belongs and he sacrifices everything he has including his friendship with Xavier to feel acknowledged. As Elijah struggles with his Windigo spirit and Xavier attempts to hold his legacy as a wendigo killer it leads to utmost rivalry and jealousy between the two.

Jealousy is an emotion that only harms oneself and unleashes one’s dark innermost demons. Xavier has jealousy towards Elijah because everyone believes he is the superior soldier. Although Elijah secretly understands that Xavier is a much better soldier; Elijah is able to manipulate Xavier and make him look like a “useless bush Indian” (Boyden 109). Xavier is virtually ignored by the rest of the battalion because of his lack of communication, therefore Elijah is able to present himself as the superior individual. Although Xavier is able to recognize what is happening he sticks to his ethic of noninterference. This action shows Xavier is so culturally sound and this causes Elijah to develop jealousy towards Xavier. Xavier never has his heritage stripped from him while Elijah has everything taken away from him. Elijah will do anything to redeem himself and become the best soldier. Moreover, Elijah’s ambition to prove himself not places himself in danger but it also endangers the other soldiers. When he leaves his post without warning simply to gain more kills, his plainly explains that he “was out there killing fritz” (Boyden 178). This highlights the selfishness within Elijah since he only cares about self-gain because he shows no regard for the other soldiers. Throughout Xavier and Elijah’s conflicts with each other, their differences in character are clearly demonstrated. Furthermore one sees Elijah has a selfish and addictive personality where he is always trying to please others. He tries overly hard to fit. Xavier on the other hand already has an identity and doesn’t care about impressing others. Xavier’s character development is also demonstrated throughout the jealousy because he matures from his conflicts with Elijah and his experiences at war. Xavier finally understands the only way to free Elijah from the windigo spirit and his drive for power is to end Elijah’s life.

Xavier and Elijah share a powerful bond, however war tears them apart from their own jealousy, addictions, and cultural differences. Although Xavier and Elijah share a great bond of brotherhood during their childhood, the war breaks them apart. The European way of life exposes the addictive drug morphine. This drug drives Elijah mad and this introduces great animosity between the two. Their disagreement with cultural values expresses the cross-cultural conundrum. Xavier is a traditional individual who is against the Europeans beliefs whereas Elijah is assimilated into the western culture. Elijah does whatever is necessary to please other and this allows the opportunity for the Windigo to develop. As their differences in opinions clash with each other, it brings forth their aggressive nature. As the two fight out who is the predominant figure, the impact of the war on the two is unmistakably illustrated. There are no winners in war; war only destroys one’s most valued relationships and leaves individuals broken.

No Glory In War

War increases conflicts causing relationships to break revealing one’s true nature. In the historical fictional novel Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden uses the character’s Xavier and Elijah to explain how conflicts lead to devastating effects in war. The contrasting personalities and different cultural values between Xavier and Elijah, the need to be superior, and Elijah’s fixation with terminating enemies advance the plot; ultimately leading to disastrous effects on war which affects relationships.

The first clash is the cross cultural conundrum Elijah and Xavier face against each other. Elijah is seen to embrace the western side with welcome arms while Xavier finds it strange. A prime example of the western side is the use of morphine: “Just a little bit? A push to get me through, this difficult evening?” (Boyden 146). Here, Elijah is seen desperate for morphine to which Xavier, disapproves. In fact, Xavier tells Elijah that he [Elijah] will no longer have any morphine, to which Elijah dismisses later on in the novel, and becomes addicted, thus, a wedge is driven between them. Another difference is Elijah’s ability to speak English, while Xavier can not. Due to Elijah’s experiences in residential schools, Elijah learns English. As a result, Elijah finds it easier to converse with his fellow soldiers, while Xavier is seen as a social outcast. Moreover, Elijah and Xavier have different perspectives on the indigenous cultures. Xavier views the indigenous culture in high regard while Elijah views the culture distastefully. As a matter of fact, Elijah insults Xavier numerously by calling Xavier a heathen, even though he himself is indigenous. On the other hand, the attention Elijah receives drives the wedge between his relationship with Xavier further since Xavier is treated as if he invisible. Moreover, Elijah’s ability to make friends and conversation causes Xaver to feel envy.

Due to Elijah’s skill in English, Elijah receives attention from his comrades. However, Xavier does not receive any attention, giving way to jealousy and a need to compete. Since Elijah has taken the spotlight, Xavier feels that he has become “a brown ghost” (Boyden 65). Thus, Xavier has become more competitive to gain recognition for his efforts and attention. This is seen in the shooting competition where Xavier competes to be acknowledged as the best shot. Xavier is tired of being ignored and being in Elijah’s shadow, so he takes this as an opportunity to show that he is capable of the same skills of Elijah. Xavier even thinks about revealing to the other soldiers that he taught Elijah how to hunt. Moreover, when Xavier eliminates the German sniper that had been slaying Xavier and Elijah’s allies, he picks up the German’s Mauser. Here Xavier and Elijah’s are in disagreement of who uses the Mauser. Elijah tries to convince Xavier to give him the Mauser, but Xavier denies him the weapon. Furthermore, the murderous rampage Elijah fulfills himself with; along with his disappearances increases the distance between them and sets the novel for the final battle: Xavier versus Elijah.

Elijah’s addiction to slaying German soldiers causes Xavier to be wary for him. Elijah wanders off by himself numerous times, and causes Xavier to worry for his safety as well as what he is doing. The two differ in morals as well. Xavier understands that it his duty to kill the enemy, and even prays for forgiveness after murdering. However, Elijah has become obsessed with killing, and can not come back to his normal self. Xavier realizes this through the death of a innocent woman and her child. He even scalps an enemy’s head after slaying him. Elijah tries to justify his actions by telling Xavier was in trouble, but one can tell that it was a civilian, not a soldier. As a result, Xavier tries to distance himself from Elijah and worries what to do to help him. On the other hand, Elijah’s stories of his adventures into German lines causes Xavier to realize that Elijah has become mentally unstable and must be stopped. Moreover, Xavier held suspicions that Elijah had gone Windigo from the moment Elijah offered Xavier horsemeat, which is not possible since there are no horses near. However, what truly reinforced this suspicion was the confrontation from Xavier to Elijah: “I think you did more than just kill that young soldier yesterday” (Boyden 370). Elijah does not answer the question, but insteads poses a question on his own : “Why do you say that” (Boyden 350). He then proceeds to threaten Xavier to get out of his way, which shows that the relationship between Xavier and Elijah has become fragile. Therefore, it is no surprise when Elijah tells Xavier that only one of them will survive in the battle. Furthermore, Xavier comes from a line of Windigo killers, meaning that Xavier must do what is needed of him. Xavier then takes it upon himself to eliminate Elijah, to free him from the evil Windigo spirit, and to stop further madness.

The differing and evolving characteristics between Xavier and Elijah move the plot forward concluding that war ravages relationships, which is shown with the bond between Xavier and Elijah. The dissimilarities in Xavier and Elijah’s cultures, competitive natures, and Elijah’s excessive murders are all results of the pressures war puts upon the soldiers. To put it simply, war ends in bonds breaking and causes one to reveal his or her true nature. There is no victor in war; what is left is a broken individual that has lost everything.