Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden

Viking Canada, 351 pp, $32, hardcover.

In an uncanny feat of literary imagination, Joseph Boyden has taken some of the most clichéd figures in Canadian fiction and wrapped them up in a tale that's pure magic.

Who among us does not know the story of the soldier returned home from the wars, broken and bitter beyond all repair? Who does not know the First Nations child, brutalized by the religious wardens of the residential-school system? Who wouldn't recognize the Native healer, guardian of forest secrets and all that is feminine and wise? And who does not look away in disgust from the army officer-or policeman, or politician-who loves the law more than the men under his command?

These are the walking archetypes that populate Boyden's first novel, Three Day Road, a book whose philosophical underpinnings-the clash between spiritual Natives and amoral wemistikoshiw; the gulf between the everyday dangers of nature and the twisted snares of war-are equally familiar and well-used. Yet there's hardly a paragraph here that doesn't deliver a fresh jolt of surprise and hardly an image that doesn't flare up into a bright mental picture.

Boyden delivers by letting his two worlds bleed into each other. The hunting skills his two protagonists, Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, learn from Bird's aunt, Niska, allow them to survive the killing fields of the First World War-or they do up to a point. And although the proud Niska is one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Oji-Cree, she lets herself be seduced and discarded by a francophone trapper (upon whom, admittedly, she extracts a terrible vengeance). The smoking earth left behind by a forest fire mirrors the broken pastures of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge; French soldiers teach Whiskeyjack what it is to be a savage.

It could all be terribly bleak, but Boyden's braided stories twine together to a surprisingly gentle ending. There is death-many deaths-but there is also rebirth and beauty in this author's passionate storytelling as in the world he describes.