Heartfelt northern exposure

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ON SOME North American Indian reservations during the Great War, virtually the entire able-bodied male population was shipped off to France and never made it back home. Now Canadian writer Joseph Boyden, whose family are part-Cree and part-Micmac, has captured that little-documented experience in his lyrical first novel, Three Day Road.

Boyden's warriors are two young Cree men from Moose Factory in northern Ontario who find and lose themselves in the turbulence of a European war. They prove to be effective killers but are nearly destroyed in the process. Elijah Whiskeyjack, an orphan, and his friend Xavier Bird were raised by Bird's aunt, Niska, a traditional Oji-Cree healer and hunter. But as Elijah, an expert sniper who speaks little English, chalks up a record-breaking number of deaths, he becomes a man obsessed. As he tells Xavier: "I found the one thing I am truly talented at, and that is killing men."

Running the fingers of his left hand through his pitch-black hair, Boyden shakes my hand firmly when we meet in London. He has hit the US literary jackpot with Isabelle Allende choosing his novel for a national TV programme's book club, assuring its sales there. He seems slightly awed by his success as he describes a glowing endorsement from Louise Erdrich, a well-known Native American writer, and is delighted that women readers seem to enjoy his novel despite its masculine themes of war and male friendship.

He met Canadian literary doyenne Margaret Atwood at a Toronto awards dinner. "I got to sit there and chat with her all night," Boyden says, breaking into a wide smile. "It was hilarious. She's odd, but she's hilarious." Since then, they have begun an ardent email correspondence.

Although Boyden grew up in suburban Toronto, across the city from where Atwood lives, he now divides his time between a house in Georgian Bay in Northern Ontario and New Orleans, where he is a professor of creative writing. In his fiction, Boyden explores his roots, drawing on stories from his doctor father, who was the most highly decorated medical officer in the British Empire during the Second World War.

His father died when he was just eight, so to keep his memory alive, Boyden became a voracious reader of military histories, nourishing an image of Dr Boyden as the 'healer warrior'. "I grew up with the legend of my father. My father was much more the strict Irish doctor and military man who didn't want us to recognise our native connection. We never discussed it, but he was part-Micmac." It was Boyden's mother, a widow with a large family to raise (Joseph is the youngest of 11), who took the family north in the summer to spend time with their mixed-blood relatives.

But if Boyden grew up canoeing across cold-water lakes and tramping through the birch forests with his relatives, no one ever explained their connection. His parents were raised during the 1930s when native heritage was considered shameful and many mixed-race people would pretend to be white. "I think my grandmother lived with this quietly, unhappily," says Boyden, "My mother just refused to recognise it so didn't grow up with any kind of prejudice."

Among the native people who became important to Boyden was Francis Pegahmagabow, a sniper credited with killing 378 Germans during the Great War, who is fictionalised as the sharpshooter Peggy in the novel. Pegahmagabow was the chief of the Parry Island reserve near where Boyden's mother now lives, and Boyden grew up with his grandchildren. "Francis looked at being a sniper as a job, neither with happiness nor sadness," says Boyden. "To him it was like trapping and he was very good at it. But Canadians have completely forgotten him."

Boyden remembers hearing that when Pegahmagabow returned to Canada, he was made a conquering hero before the promises of rewards for hard service evaporated. "He wanted to begin to raise horses and to start farming," Boyden says. "He went to his Indian agent [a government employee who managed the Indian reserves] and asked for a $300 loan and the agent turned him down, saying: 'How can I trust you with animals?'"

This experience of "horrible, paternalistic racism" turned Pegahmagabow into a politician who eventually founded an assembly of native peoples in Canada.

As an adult, Boyden rediscovered his relationship with the north when he took a teaching job at a community college near Hudson's Bay, after gaining a master's degree in fiction at New Orleans University. There he had met his wife Amanda, who is also a novelist. They worked together in James Bay where, as a lecturer in communications, Boyden often had to travel far into the bush by plane, snowmobile or freight helicopter to visit his students on far-flung reserves.

Boyden found many living without running water in homes that had to withstand sub-arctic temperatures, heated only with wood-burning stoves. "I was shocked, and this was in the 1990s. It was amazing to me, the Third World conditions there, but they were also some of the greatest people I've ever met." That sense of shock and injustice made its way into Boyden's fiction.

WHILE BOYDEN explains that this mixed-race heritage is important to him, he is careful to articulate the differences between growing up on a northern reserve and, as he did, in the relative affluence of Toronto. "When I look in the mirror, I don't say 'I'm an Indian'. It's not a huge part of my make-up but a huge part of who I am."

The rhythm of his current life seems to suggest this blending of cultures and national identities, as Boyden and his American wife divide their time between New Orleans and summers in northern Ontario, where he is currently working on an oral history project, interviewing elders on local reserves. The distance from Canada gives him the mental space to write about it in his favourite New Orleans caf.

Perhaps that geographical distance is necessary when dealing with the raw emotion of racial abuse that burns like a quiet anger in Boyden's novel. He describes eloquently his characters Xavier and Elijah's sense of alienation from their fellow soldiers, and Niska's brutal treatment by the white fur traders in their local town. Boyden is first and foremost a sensual writer but his fiction has a message: however far Canada has come in facing up to its racist past, it still has a long way to go.

• The Three Day Road, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 12.99

• Joseph Boyden is at the Book Festival on Thursday, August 18, 12.30pm