Stories of adventure and survival against the odds abound in literature. I stayed up many a night reading into the small hours of the morning because I could not put such novels down. I had to race through to the end to see what happens. The best ones kept me reading because the dangers and threats encountered by the protagonist seemed inescapable, and the good writers made the characters’ survival both realistic yet unpredictable; that is not an easy task. And if they died, the death was of a scope worthy of such heroes. Such is the power of the adventure narrative.
Two novels that have beguiled me lately are The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge (Picador, 2015) by Michael Punke, and Three Day Road (Penguin, 2005) by Joseph Boyden. It should be noted that I have not seen the Leonardo DiCaprio film of The Revenant, so I will be focusing only on the novel.
Michael Punke, himself, has an interesting back story. He is the Deputy United States Trade Representative and the U.S. Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. What does this have to do with his novel? Well, he can do no publicity for the book or for the film made from it. He cannot even sign copies for people. This is an unusual situation for an author.
The book tells the true story of Hugh Glass, mountain man, fur trapper and frontiersman who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the upper plain states of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana. Glass’ feat of survival is extraordinary. Not many people withstand an assault by a grizzly bear, and indeed, Glass nearly doesn’t. After being abandoned hundreds of miles from civilization by the two men the fur company left behind to care for him, without weapons or supplies, with a broken leg, severe scalp lacerations, his throat nearly ripped out and cuts on his back down to the bone, he manages to crawl, swim, and float down the Cheyenne River to the nearest fort. During this excursion, he also avoids hostile Native Americans who believe the only good white man is a dead white man. Glass is determined to get his distinctive Anstadt rifle back and take revenge on the two men responsible for his abandonment.
This building momentum for bloody revenge courses through every page of Punke’s book. It keeps the reader consistently on edge. But since the story of Hugh Glass is well known, and Punke labels his work historical fiction, the writer is somewhat hobbled by a story not of his own creation. Therefore, the end of the novel (which I will not spoil), although historically accurate, falls flat. A subtitle of “A Novel of Revenge” makes certain promises inherent in the work, and although Glass does exact his pound of flesh from the two men who left him for dead, the revenge, when it comes, lacks a little in scope and intensity. By far, the most interesting part of the novel is the attack and Glass’ journey to the fort.
The novel, Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, manages to do more in terms of history and story. Two Native American boys go off to fight in the trenches of World War I and become deadly snipers. Their story jumps back and forth in time to a medicine woman who journeys from her home in the Canadian wilderness to find her nephew, one of the two snipers, when he returns from the front. She finds him sick and injured, addicted to morphine, and she brings him home to heal.
The best of Boyden’s writing comes in the scenes of trench warfare and the growing tension between the two boys, one of whom develops a love of killing that becomes pathological and psychotic. I was reminded of Robert Graves’ memoir, Goodbye To All That (Anchor, 1958). Like Graves, Boyden puts us in the trenches and conveys the terror and horrific conditions of war. This is simply one of the best books I’ve read about war, and the Great War specifically.
Boyden also conveys the beauty of the Native American culture and the destruction of battle both physically and emotionally on the two boys. His plot builds to an overwhelming climax that equals the tension of what has come before it. His writing is spare and beautiful, even in its horror and bloodshed, and his utilization of Native American culture gives the story a profound and deeper resonance. These boys save many lives with their rifles, but they are still the Other within their company of fighting men, never fully accepted, never fully a part of the English and Canadian fighters.
The story of the medicine woman is interesting and necessary to the end of the book and the resolution of the conflict. With her, Boyden is able to give us a window into Native American culture and practices. She is necessary to the story and makes for a good counterpoint to the horrific scenes of bloodshed and battle.
Boyden does something interesting with the repeated use of the number three. The three day road of the title refers to someone who is prepared to die. The process of death is a three day road that one must travel. This also connects to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christ died and rose again three days later, and indeed, the surviving boy, the poetically named Xavier Bird, is mistakenly listed as killed in action. Only after the defeat of his addiction and acceptance of his life post-war is he able to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes of war. Boyden uses the number three in several areas of the book, including the way that trenches were constructed in patterns of three—the front line, the support line, and the reserve line. When the soldiers have time away from the battlefield, they look for rest, women, and food/drink. It is the Native American tradition of a dead man walking a three day road that Boyden mirrors here.
Both novels are exciting and interesting, offering more than just a diversion. They reminded me so much of the books I sought out as a kid—true stories of adventure, daring, and heroism. I found myself spending my evenings in front of the fire over this holiday period reading into the small hours of the morning. It was heaven.