Each year on Remembrance Day I find myself at a loss. Not at a loss for those who were lost, but rather, because growing up when I have, with violence so far from home, with full-scale war a thing of history text books, the experience of the men and women who died seems unfathomable. The last couple years, fearing apathy and ignorance, I decided to read novels about the wars around Remembrance Day. And it’s helped tremendously – for what better medium to empathize with someone than through literature? And so, though I’m a bit early this year, I find myself like the unidentified narrator of Findley’s The Wars, attempting to find one life (even a fictional one) to revive through story.
The Wars attempts to discover the story of Robert Ross, a 19 year old Canadian who decides to enter the First World War after his cherished sister’s unexpected death. We follow Ross through training, across the ocean, through the trenches, and in the hospitals, watching the gradual transformation of this gentle soul into an embittered, angry combatant. His disillusion is cemented when he is gang raped in the complete darkness by anonymous fellow officers – those he should be able to trust. In the darkness, the clearest enemy is the enemy within.
As a foil to this human spiritual decline, Findley assembles a veritable menagerie of animals – ducks, rabbits, toads, rats, horses, dogs and so on. Rather than suggesting man’s bestial nature, they are aligned with lost innocence from the very beginning, when Ross’ crippled sister dies among her rabbits. Even at the very end, Ross does not hesitate to shoot a fellow officer in the face, but he is determined to save the horses. Various characters rendered sympathetic based on their relationships with animals. Take Rodwell, whom Ross shares a bunker with, and who nurses wounded animals back to health. When Rodwell is sent to the front, he gives Ross a toad to free and this letter for his daughter:
To my daughter, Laurine;
Love your mother.
Make your prayers against despair.
I am alive in everything I touch. Touch these pages and you have me in your finger tips. We survive in one another. Everything lives forever. Believe it. Nothing dies.
I am your father always.
I’m quoting this not only because it made me cry on public transit (there you go Anna), but because in writing The Wars, in trying to reassemble the past, Findley has provided an essential gateway for those of us who would forget, or who would never have known. And I think there can be no better, and no more essential message for war literature and for all those who died than: “Touch these pages and you have me in your finger tips. We survive in one another.”
Lest we forget.