The Wars tells the story of a young Canadian man who becomes a soldier in WWI. It’s about what war is like, what it can do to the soldiers who fight, and how it can effect the families and friends of the soldiers who fight. In the end, for Robert Ross, it is about how he can, in the midst of violence and ugliness, commit to life instead of death.
Timothy Findley’s descriptions of the horrors of WWI are vivid and real. But he takes the story a step further to include life away from the trenches. Life looks different through the eyes of a soldier who has been at the front. Findley also takes us back to Ontario where Robert’s family is missing him and thinking of him. Each of his family members reacts differently to his absence.
This novel is not long, so it does not include a whole history of WWI, but instead it concentrates on one man’s story. What happened to him? Why did he do what he did? Did his decisions make him a good soldier or a bad soldier, a good man or a bad man? Many years later, a nurse who had been in the war was being interviewed about Robert:
My opinion was – he was a hero. …You see, he did the thing that no one else would even dare to think of doing.
While the War was going on around him, Robert was fighting his own internal war. He was young, he was seeing so much trauma and madness. He had left his home shortly after a family tragedy. There were decisions being made that didn’t make sense to him, or didn’t seem right. How hard would it be to have to carry out orders that were against your beliefs, values, or even just your common sense?
This… was the greatest terror of war: what you didn’t know of the men who told you what to do-where to go and when. What if they were mad-or stupid? What if their fear was greater than yours? Or what if they were brave and crazy-wanting and demanding bravery from you?
A few more good passages:
Mud was invented here. Mudland must have been its name. The ground is the colour of steel. Over most of the plain there isn’t a trace of topsoil; only sand and clay. …When it rains (which is almost constantly from early September through to March, except when it snows) the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints- and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you ‘waded to the front’. Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.
What you people who weren’t yet born can never know is what it meant to sleep in cities under silent falls of snow when all night long the only sounds you heard were dogs that barked at trains that passed so far away they took a short cut through your dreams and no one even woke. It was the war that changed that. It was. After the Great War for Civilization- sleep was different everywhere…
I doubt we will ever be forgiven. All I hope is – they’ll remember we were human beings.
The Wars by Timothy Findley won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1977.
Any thoughts on The Wars? Another wonderful WWI book is Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. Has anyone read any others?