Two Cree Indians from eastern Canada experience WWI trench warfare in Canadian Boyden’s first novel (following his story collection, Born with a Tooth, 2001).
Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, so-called bush Indians who live in the woods, have been friends since childhood. Xavier learned his hunting skills from his auntie, Niska, and he in turn taught Elijah, who was schooled by nuns and speaks far better English than Xavier. The war is over when the story opens and a fever-stricken Xavier, sustained only by morphine, is coming home to Niska. It then alternates between Xavier’s last days, his and Niska’s recollections of the past (Niska is a diviner and windigo, or cannibal, killer), and scenes of the European battlefield, which get pride of place. What prompted the Crees to enlist is unclear (a curious omission), but Niska blessed them with the wisdom of the ages: “You must do what you must do.” Boyden’s rendering of the war is both faithful and wrong-headed. As to its faithfulness, it doesn’t deviate from the standard accounts of trench warfare, so that here are the Canadian lines, while a few yards away is Fritz (aka the Hun, the Bosch). There are endless trench raids as snipers fire from nests and big guns roar. There is discomfort (lice, trench foot), there is horror, and there is morphine. The quiet Xavier and the flamboyant, garrulous Elijah are just two more privates sucked into this hellhole. They’re superb marksmen, and, as a sniper, Elijah racks up an astonishing 356 kills as he becomes a morphine addict and walks a fine line between heroism and homicide (a standard-case history). As for the wrong-headedness, it lies in Boyden’s lack of awareness that his oft-told tale leans now toward the numbing rather than the revelatory.
What might have been a punchy novella, linking the Cree windigo killer phenomenon to the killing fields of Europe, has been inflated to a size that obscures what might have been its uniqueness.