Robert Ross, the protagonist, a young man of nineteen, undergoes the most harrowing initiation into adulthood imaginable. He learns that men, stripped of civilization’s veneer, are capable of utter brutality. His faith in senior officers, in the ideals of glory and heroism and patriotism, is eroded and lost. He learns that real spiritual and physical love, once experienced, brings with it an enduring sense of the wonder of life itself.
Ross’s climactic actions, in trying simply to save the lives of the two groups of horses from the insanity of war, affirm his essential humanity. He feels compassion; he acts to save others; he accepts the consequences. According to his field nurse and Juliet, in spite of tremendous pain and loss, he insists on the ultimate significance of life itself, refusing easy ways to death until it takes him. Robert Ross has become a man, an extraordinary one, in his one year at war.
Timothy Findley is also gifted in creating minor characters who linger in the reader’s mind. Who can forget Rodwell, the talented illustrator of children’s books, who collects the wounded animals of the war and tries to nurse them back to health? Rodwell’s sketchbook—full of drawings of animals and one human, Ross—survives Rodwell’s own suicide to teach Ross a lesson. In addition, there is the great affirmation of Rodwell’s farewell letter to his daughter: that nothing ever really dies. Taffler, Levitt, Harris, Devlin—all...
(The entire section is 438 words.)