Choice or Circumstance
In Joseph Boyden’s novel Three Day Road Elijah is a character with a very complex personality and history. In this novel Elijah is one of several characters whose journey through the war is recounted by the narrator Xavier, Elijah’s best friend. When Elijah goes into the war he has a past laced with trauma and abuse meaning that he was a more unstable individual than most and possessed less resilience to deal with the horrors of war. His experiences of loss, sexual and physical abuse all contribute to his instability. When Elijah is in the war he starts to display various irrational behaviours leading the reader to wonder if he is approaching insanity. He tries morphine, starts scalping his victims and begins to find joy and validation in killing. Elijah does start to behave in unacceptable ways and seems to display a complete lack of empathy for other human beings. When some of his poor choices are discovered, he reacts in an extreme way in order to avoid the consequences; he starts acting impulsively and puts himself into dangerous situations that are disturbing to the reader. Elijah’s complex traumas in the past made him a victim of circumstance and were responsible for his irrational decisions during the war. Childhood trauma can adversely affect cognitive reasoning skills, emotional responses to situations, behaviour, and day to day living. Elijah experienced trauma in three key ways, the loss of a primary caregiver, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. For a child, the loss of a mother or other key caregiver can be devastating to their ability to attach to anyone else and to form any lasting relationships. Xavier the narrator of this novel tells us of Elijah’s loss of his mother: “When Elijah was a child, His mother died of a coughing sickness. He was young and would not accept that she was dead. He continued to talk to her, picturing her in front of him. The nuns who watched over him at the residential school grew angry at his behavior, and began to punish him whenever he and his mother talked. So he did it more and more until often his body ached badly from their paddlings and whippings.”(Boyden 332) Elijah was suffering the first stage of grieving, denial. Elijah wanted his mother’s love and affection and so he created this image of his mother in his mind. The nuns, in their eagerness to eradicate all of the native culture also halted Elijah’s emotional development. They would beat him when he would try to communicate with his mother. Elijah’s communication with his dead mother is a coping mechanism in this case; he is creating what he needs. When he goes to the war he shuts down his emotional attachment. He finds it difficult to trust anyone. He is afraid of being hurt again in the way his mother’s death hurt him as a child. Loss to a child is devastating and can affect many parts of their brain development. When coupled with sexual abuse Elijah’s trauma becomes more complex and there is more damage to his stress response and ability to function. Elijah was sexually abused. When Elijah and Xavier are both fifteen years old Elijah tells Xavier a story. They have made camp for the night and they are out hunting: “Without planning it or wanting to, Elijah tells me the story of the nun, Magdalene, who liked to bathe him each week when he was a boy. He tells me of how she would rub her soapy hands over him, how Elijah would get an erection, how she would scold him and then take his erection in her hands and rub him until his taught penis thumped against his lower belly in a spasm.” (Boyden 341) Sexual abuse is when someone touches or engages in any type of sexual involvement with a child. Some common effects of this type of trauma include anger and irritability, substance abuse, difficulty concentrating, hyper-vigilance and feeling jumpy and easily startled. This quote is the second reference to Elijah’s sexual abuse in this...
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