A necessary horror story – may we never forget
I have read other Timothy Findley novels and enjoyed them immensely (Not Wanted on the Voyage springs to mind). But The Wars eluded me despite being listed as a favourite Findley novel by friends and family and in spite of its many references in newspapers and magazines over the years. I was recently re-introduced to this book in a magazine, The Walrus. Alec Scott wrote the piece and it inspired me to borrow a copy from my mother. She’s a big Findley fan – all his books are lined up on her alphabetically-ordered bookshelf. (Thanks, ma.)
I wish I had read this sooner but I’m very glad I read it now. As a Newfoundlander, I have been steeped in the stories of the Newfoundland Regiment and the Battle of the Somme – Beaumont Hamel in particular, where most of the best part of a generation of Newfoundlanders was caught in German crossfire and annihilated. The story is personal and passed down by oral history. It is part of the very fabric of Newfoundland, as all of our families were affected on that bloodthirsty July morning.
Findley’s book is an unflinching look at what the Great War was like. The terror and deafness of bombardment, life in trenches and dugouts, waist deep water, drowning in a sea of mud and corpses, smothered under gas attack, obliterated by a shell. We see this through the eyes of 19-year-old Robert Ross, a second Lieutenant from a wealthy Toronto family, in the Battle for Ypres. Ross has been put in charge of moving ammunition to the front with a team of horses and we feel every agonizing second of his life. There are horrible, violent events. The scene in which the men come under gas attack while trapped in a crater is not one I will ever forget.
There are acts of courage and gallantry and plenty of stupid slaughter. There is also a love story and a story of family’s loss and sorrow. This is a powerful book, a haunting book, filled with questions of morality and courage. If you have not read it since you were a child or like me, you have yet to experience its brilliance, pick it up. It’s probably on your mom’s book shelf.
Guy Vanderhaege’s A Good Man deals with morality and courage, love and warfare, but of a different era, that of 1876 and the Montana Territory and the end of the “Wild West.” Wesley Case is the son of a wealthy lumber baron who disobeys his father’s wishes and joins the North West Mounted Police after his stint in the army ends less than gloriously. His time in the NWMP at an end, Case sets out for Fort Benton to become a cattle rancher with the help of one of my favouritely-drawn cowboys, Joe McMullen. He also plays the role of intermediary between the NWMP and the Fort on the American side of the line. The Battle of Little Big Horn has been lost and the American press is baying blood and revenge. The British Government does not want to go to war with the Sioux but at the same time does not want to upset the Americans. As battle lines are drawn and all sides prepare for war, Case begins his cattle enterprise and his role as part spy/part buffer between the two governments.
Vanderhaege’s novel takes a wide view of the West and encompasses the span of history from the Fenian Invasion of Canada and Case’s ignominious role in that conflict, his intrigues with the Canadian Secret Service, his meeting with Sitting Bull and a burgeoning love story between Case and the independently minded Ada Tarr. We also meet a darkly malevolent character in the form of Michael Dunne, whose role in the lives of all the other characters proves to be pivotal. Fully drawn, with sometimes lyrical language, this place comes alive in the reader’s mind. Whether describing the first blizzard of the year or an infantry charge, Vanderhaege’s prose is evocative. There is something of an ending of an era, the breaking of the range and the settling of the West, the beginnings of the reservation system, the end of the old ways. A truly powerful read.