Timothy Findley’s 1977 novel about the mental and physical destruction of a young Canadian soldier in the First World War won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction. It is widely regarded as one of the country’s definitive historical war novels. It has been called “one of the most remarkable novels of war ever published” and “the finest historical novel ever written by a Canadian.” The Globe and Mail referred to The Wars as “the great Canadian novel about the First World War.”
Timothy Findley was born in Toronto on 30 October 1930. (He died in France on 21 June 2002.) Uninterested in school, he dropped out after Grade 10, studying dance and acting. In 1953, he was a member of the first acting company at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Findley acted throughout North American and England. He later described acting as “the best apprenticeship for a writer. Because you learn language, structure, cadence, rhythm, how to build the tension. How to bring something to a climax at the end of Act One or the first chapter or whatever. You learn all of that in the theater and you take that into your prose.”
Findley began writing after actor Ruth Gordon and playwright Thornton Wilder both encouraged him. He published two novels outside Canada:The Last of the Crazy People (1967) and The Butterfly Plague (1969). He also wrote two screenplays and co-wrote the 1974 CBC TV miniseries The National Dream, based on the book by Pierre Berton. He then became the first playwright in residence at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa before publishing The Wars in 1977.
Findley based The Wars’ protagonist Robert Ross partly on his uncle, Thomas Irving Findley. The book is dedicated to his uncle, whose letters home during the war were Findley’s primary research.
The Wars tells the story of Robert Ross, a young Canadian who serves as a lieutenant in the Canadian Army during the First World War. The novel features first-person narration as well as interviews supposedly conducted by a historian trying to piece together Ross’s story years after the fact.
Ross enlists in the army out of guilt over his role in the death of his sister, Rowena, who fell out of her wheelchair while playing with her pet rabbits. Robert was supposed to be watching her, but was instead masturbating in his room. Robert’s mother orders him to kill the pet rabbits, but he cannot bring himself to do so. Robert’s shame related to sex and tender feelings toward animals become recurring themes throughout the book.
In army training, Ross meets Taffler, a war hero who he hopes will teach him how to kill without fear. During a visit to a brothel, Robert witnesses Taffler having sex with another man and smashes a mirror out of anger and shame. On the boat ride to Europe,
Robert takes care of the horses onboard. But when one falls ill and he is forced to shoot it, he misses several times, making him question whether he is ready for war.
On the Western Front, Robert and other recruits are initially eager, but the horrors of the war quickly overwhelm them. Robert witnesses a friend succumb to shell shock and begins to feel guilty about the deaths of other men. As a lieutenant, he feels responsible for their safety, in the same way he felt responsible for Rowena. After saving his men from a gas attack by hiding in a shell crater, Robert feels overwhelming guilt when he mistakenly shoots a German sniper who had chosen not to kill his troops as they left the crater.
While recovering from injuries in a converted hospital, Robert again meets Taffler, who has lost both his arms in the fighting. Robert begins a violent sexual affair with one of the girls who lived in the home before it became a hospital. On his way back to the front, Robert gets lost, eventually ending up in a mental institution, where he is sexually assaulted by other soldiers. With his mental health deteriorating, he burns the picture of his sister he has been carrying, deciding that something so innocent should not exist in such a horrifying world.
Shortly after Robert returns to the front, his position is shelled. Worried about his company’s horses, Robert attempts to free them from their barn, but is prevented by his captain. When an enemy shell hits the barn and causes the horses to burn to death, Robert shoots his captain and flees from the front. He eventually finds a train car of horses destined for the front and frees them, hiding in a nearby barn after killing a soldier who attempts to return the horses. When other soldiers find Robert, they set the barn on fire to smoke him out. Robert refuses to leave, suffering horrific burns, while the horses are all killed.
Though Robert is court-martialed for deserting the front and killing his fellow soldiers, he is in too poor a condition to go to prison. He lives out the rest of his days in the same hospital where he was treated during the war. He dies a few years after the war ends.
Reception and Legacy
The Wars was an immediate and lasting success following its publication in 1977. It was praised for its depiction of the horrors of war and its effect on soldiers. Upon its release, Canadian Literature described it as “one of the most remarkable novels of war ever published,” noting the “honesty and intensity in its expression.” In his introduction to the 2005 edition of the book, writer Guy Vanderhaeghe described it as “the finest historical novel ever written by a Canadian.” Its reputation extended beyond direct discussion of the book: in a review of Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, the Globe and Mail referred to The Wars as “the great Canadian novel about the First World War.”
The book won the 1977 Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction, Findley’s first major prize. It was adapted into a feature film in 1983, for which Findley wrote the screenplay; it was directed by Robin Phillips and starred Brent Carver, Martha Henry, William Hutt and Jackie Burroughs. The novel was also adapted into a play by Dennis Garnhum and Theatre Calgary in 2007. It continues to be widely read as part of high school and university curricula, though it has been challenged for its depictions of homosexual sex and sexual assault.
- Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction (1977)