"The cruelty of living and dying can be astounding."
This one will stick with me for a bit.
Xavier Bird grows up in the bush with his aunt Niska, but finds himself pulled into World War I by his friend Elijah who is enamored with the idea of heading off to fight. Xavier reluctantly follows. The story is told from two points in time: Xavier having returned from the war without a leg and addicted to morphine being paddled down the river on a 3-day journey home by Niska who picks him up at the train station, and Xavier reliving his time during the war and what happens between him and Elijah. The war is, predictably, horrific, and does terrible things to both Xavier Bird and Elijah's minds and bodies. We also get some backstory for Niska herself, as she cares for her nephew during his periods of unconsciousness and delirium. She tells him stories of her life, as a way to reconnect him with the life he left (in a “do you remember this” sort of way) and as a way to get herself in the right mindset to help care for him.
This was a tough book for me to get through, not because I didn't enjoy it, but because it covers tough material. The war was not kind to anyone, and there's graphic depictions of how it was for Elijah and Xavier. The two friends had a very close bond going into the war, and it was really interesting/heartbreaking to see how it evolved during it.
There's some inclusion of spirituality in this book as well, with some discussion of Cree mythology and traditions that really highlight Niska's and Xavier's connection with the land and themselves. I thought that was an interesting inclusion, and between it and the sporadic inclusion of Cree words for things, really added another layer to the book for me.
Finally, the prose/writing itself was spectacular. Some of the trench depictions had me right there with Xavier, and I spent basically all of the book at the edge of my seat trying to figure out what happened to them that Xavier ended up where he did at the end/beginning. I also thought the quiet/less intense moments of the story were thoughtful, and added a lot to the characters in the story.
I feel like I'm not doing this story justice for how good it was to me and the feelings it made me feel. It's one of those books that will stick with me for a while, for good reasons. It's evidently part of a series, but the second book looks unrelated to the first, at least in the summary. I'm definitely going to pick it up at some point.