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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

While Timothy Findley places much of the novel’s action in Europe’s battlefields and encampments during the First World War, he offers a fuller development of the central character, Robert Ross, through presenting Robert’s life before and after his combat experiences. This contextualization is part of the novel’s poignant impact. Robert and his fellow officers and soldiers serving with them suffered several casualties in just the first few weeks of service, and Robert’s combat service lasted less than two years. His preparation—or lack thereof—for military life had been the entire first two decades of his life, and the impact of the experience lasted several years after. Robert’s best instincts could not save him from the horrible burning he suffered, and his essentially noble character was damaged but not destroyed in surviving the fire.

As much of Robert’s approach to life during wartime was shaped by his family interactions, including his decision to enlist, Findley apparently supports the idea that destiny plays as large a role as free will. The central fact of Robert’s pre-war life was the prenatal condition that led to his sister’s disability. Although his parents had to concentrate on caring for Rowena, Robert became deeply devoted to his sister, rather than resenting the relative lack of attention he received. Not only Rowena’s death but their mother’s reaction to it impelled him to join up. The abstract concept of “war” and the teenager’s vague notion of duty were inadequate, Findley clearly conveys, to help get him through the experience unscathed. The very qualities that made him a devoted brother made him a good comrade, but were rejected by many other soldiers—even those on his own side. Ironically, it is not combat but Robert’s continued endorsement of worthy ends, primarily to rescue the horses, that led to his disabling injury.

Findley inverts the young man’s earlier family situation by creating a new, pseudo-family for the disabled veteran. A younger British woman assumes the role of his caregiver, creating an older sister-younger brother relationship, the opposite of his actual younger brother-older sister relationship. The idea that the British aristocracy must furnish this caregiver is also significant, for as a colonial subject, the young Canadian had given up everything for Britain. Findley suggests the burden that wars placed on the younger generation of English people, who had no role in deciding to enter the war.

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