The Wars

The Wars Summary and Analysis of Part One (Sections 16 to 29)


The men are greeted at the brothel by a large, mute Swedish man. A woman takes their coats before Maria Dreyfus enters. She ushers the men into another room with seven women. Two other men, presumably cowboys, are also there. Robert is surprised to find that the establishment’s tone is quite sedate and formal. The men begin drinking whiskey. Robert is singled out by Ella, a redheaded girl. Robert does not trust redheaded women because Heather Lawson, a woman from his past, was a redhead. Ella asks him if he wants to dance. Robert awkwardly obliges and begins to feel unusual and lightheaded. The women begin pairing off with the men. Robert becomes alarmed when he notices one of the cowboys fondling the breasts of a girl sitting on his lap. He fears they will begin to have sex right there. He becomes aware of the strong desire to touch his own groin. He follows Ella upstairs.

Robert sits at the edge of Ella’s bed. She asks him what he would like, but Robert is paralyzed with fear. He has no idea what he is meant to do. Finally Ella sits next to him and puts her hand down his pants, only to find that Robert has already ejaculated. He did so coming up the stairs before even entering the room. She stands and gets a towel. She tells him to take off his pants so she can clean him off. She is kind about it, telling him it happens to many men especially on their first visit. She tells him to rest. They have the whole night. Robert, however, is ashamed, staring at the floor.

Ella tells him that if he does not have sex with her she does not get paid. He asks how anyone could know the difference. Ella tells him that Maria Dreyfus can tell from the way a man walks when he leaves. The sound of thumps and someone being slapped in another room distracts them. Ella directs Robert to a small hole in the wall where they can see into a neighboring room. There are two figures. One slaps the other repeatedly. Robert is shocked to think that someone could want someone else to slap them like that. The two figures then make their way to the bed, where they engage in intercourse. Robert sees panic in both their faces.

He sits down again and picks up his boot before throwing it across the room and shattering a mirror. He throws the other boot and breaks the water jug. Ella runs and crouches in the corner. The man being ridden was Taffler. The other man was the Swede.

In November, Robert leaves Lethbridge by train with the other men. Along the way he sees a group of Indians on horseback outside. He wonders why the men do not raise their hands in greeting to the Indians. As he enters his hometown he sees that the factories are hard at work, furnaces burning brightly. He wonders what has happened to his home and how this affects his parents. He wonders how the world he once knew has changed so much. Most of all, he wonders where he is being taken in such haste that there isn’t even time to stop. Marian Turner remarks that the war has changed everything.

Robert is promoted to second lieutenant before he is shipped out. News of the war is not positive. Thousands of Canadian soldiers are reported dead with thousands ready to replace them. Robert remembers Longboat, his hero, who was an Indian. Longboat ran marathons and won medals. Robert wishes his skin were darker, like Longboat’s. One night, after dinner, Robert decides to attempt a marathon himself. He tries to runs around the block twenty-six times, but faints at the end of the twenty-fifth lap, down with jaundice. Robert’s father, Mr. Ross, sees him through it as he recovers. Robert notices that his skin is a different color, a yellowish hue. It stays that way for a short time.

Robert dons his uniform and contemplates death. He imagines his mother showing her friends a photograph of her son next to the medals he has won. He boards the SS Masanabie destined for the front lines. Horses are brought aboard the ship, one at a time, via a cargo crane. The ship leaves port and waits in the harbor for the tide. Robert writes a letter to his father. He tells him that the pistol he sent Robert is not the type he actually requested. Robert writes that he will try to mail it back upon reaching England. His letter is cheerful in tone but betrays some sense of dread.

Mrs. Ross, Ms. Davenport, Stuart, and Mr. Ross make their way to church on a cold Sunday evening. Mrs. Ross is irritated to see a piper heralding worshipers into St. Paul’s. She knows there will be soldiers in the pews and the sermon will likely be militant and bloodthirsty. Ms. Davenport has become more and more a companion to Mrs Ross, while Mrs Ross is less and less a companion to Mr Ross. Upon seeing her neighbors and extended family gathered on the church steps, Mrs Ross grows more irritated still. She has no patience or use for the spectacle of the church. She knows that the families gathered here tonight more than likely have a son who has been shipped off to war. She sees no honesty in the sermons she will likely hear tonight. Stuart carries a snowball into the church in his mittens.

The Bishop begins his sermon and Mrs. Ross decides she cannot stand it. She gets up to leave. Ms. Davenport accompanies her. They sit on the steps outside despite Ms. Davenport’s protests. Mr. Ross, Stuart, and Peggy remain inside. Mrs. Ross asks Ms. Davenport what it is to kill one’s children and then to go and sing about it. She begins to weep angrily. A small child nearby notices the two women. Mrs. Ross realizes the child is frightened by the image of these two women sitting on the snowy steps in their Sunday best. She stands to reaffirm the child’s view of the world. The three of them return to the church where hymns are being sung. Mrs. Ross recalls that she was married in this church. She notices the pools of water on the ground from the melted snow and is forced to smile. Snowballs cannot be made from water.

A storm on the sea wreaks havoc on the ship carrying Robert and the other soldiers. The men are cramped into quarters and the only food is a horrible stew, most of which ends up on the floor. Robert is glad to have a revolver at hand in case a mutiny breaks out. After Harris, a young man Robert meets on board the ship, becomes ill, Robert is put in charge of taking care of the horses that are on board the ship.

Robert finds the horse’s quarters to be little more than a filthy hole. Manure has piled up everywhere and flies buzz about. He organizes a clean-up and soon finds himself preferring to spend more time in the hold instead of dealing with other issues aboard the ship.

Finally the ship comes in sight of land but they must wait until the harsh weather passes before it can dock. Robert returns to his bunk exhausted at 4am only to be informed that one of the horses has broken its leg. It must be shot and an officer must do it since they are the only ones allowed to carry a weapon. Robert goes to the bathroom while the Battery Sergeant Major (BSM) waits. He is unable to urinate. He has no desire to shoot the horse and wonders why someone else cannot do it instead. Finally he emerges from the bathroom, shaken. The BSM leads him below.

The ship rocks back and forth violently. Even the rats have fallen silent. Robert comes upon the fallen horse. He draws his pistol but the BSM suggests they clear the other horses away so they do not become frightened by the sound of gunfire. Robert realizes he has no idea where to shoot the horse but remembers an old picture of a cowboy shooting a horse behind the ear in a book from his childhood. His hand wavering, he takes aim, hoping someone will come up behind him and stop him. He fires. In his mind, a chair falls. The horse is not dead. Robert curses and throws down his hat. He gets down and shoots the horse again and continues pulling the trigger until the pistol clicks. The BSM pulls Robert up. The other horses begin to rear back and pull on the cables tying them. Robert slinks away with the gun dangling from his fingers. Other men are called down below to help contain the frightened horses. Robert cannot stand to face their eyes. Robert remarks to the BSM that if he could he would buy each of them a drink. The BSM remarks that he cannot drink as he promised his mother he would not.

The storm finally begins to subside by morning. However, as Robert returns to his bunk the ship lurches and Robert falls. When he returns to his bunk he examines his legs to find them severely bruised. Captain Ord notices this and immediately relieves Robert of his duties. Robert and Harris are placed on stretchers and removed from the ship in much the same manner as the horses were brought on board. Robert sees that the horses are now in the water and swimming toward shore. Children on shore are jovial at the sight of the animals. Robert writes to his father but makes no mention of his injury or of the horse he had to kill.

Mrs. Ross’s only brother, Monty Miles, had been killed while walking home. This was about the time when Mrs. Ross was in the process of getting married to Mr. Ross. Monty Miles Raymond was everyone’s favorite young man. All the girls loved him and all the boys wanted to be him. He was struck down by a street trolley that jumped its tracks. Now, in her dreams, Mrs. Ross can see the trolley jumping its track. She now spends her time watching the door for Robert’s return.

When Robert had posted overseas Mr. Ross called on his friends so that he might discover where the troop train might stop. He wanted to let Mrs. Ross see her son before he shipped off. He discovered he could see Robert in Montreal, so he and Mrs. Ross rode through the night by train to that city. She asked him to read Huckleberry Finn to her. When they arrived in the morning, Mrs. Ross got dressed and ready in the salon car and drank a third of a bottle of scotch. When she stood she fell. Her legs had fallen asleep. Mr. Ross went alone to meet Robert. He had brought his son a hamper of food and the Colt revolver in its wooden box. Mrs. Ross remained inside the train car, afraid to go out, afraid that if she did she and everyone would be struck down by trolley cars. Instead she waved from there. Findley includes a quote from Huckleberry Finn here: “Come on back to the raf’, Huck honey.”


Robert's experience at the brothel in Lousetown once again forces his intense need for privacy to come into conflict with the public sphere he now occupies. Upon being introduced to the available prostitutes, each of the men makes his choice. Only Robert is withdrawn. Ella, instead, chooses him. He does not trust redheaded women as they remind him of Heather Lawson. We are left to wonder if she really did offend his tastes or if her desire to be close to him made him uneasy. When Robert sees a cowboy begin to fondle the breasts of one of the prostitutes he becomes alarmed that he will witness them having sex. Robert isn't simply afraid of having his own privacy invaded. He is also afraid of being exposed to the intimate lives of others. He ejaculates in his pants before even reaching Ella's room. When this is discovered, he is mortified. Though Ella tries to reassure him, he feels exposed, as if a great secret about him is now known. When Ella directs him to the peephole he witnesses Eugene Taffler engaged in homosexual sex with the Swede, both expressing panic in their faces. Their intercourse is preceded by the Swede slapping Taffler. Robert is shocked by the violence in their sexuality but continues to watch. This scene can be contrasted with the one in which Lady Juliet watches Robert and Lady Barbara have sex. It also foreshadows Robert's rape in Part Five.

After seeing this, Robert is enraged. The man whom he had hoped would become his mentor is not who he thought he was. More upsetting to him is that the concept of privacy is now a luxury. It is apparent that no one has secrets in wartime. They may think that they do, but it is virtually impossible to maintain those secrets. Robert is also despondent over his invasion of Taffler's privacy. The expression of panic on both Taffler and the Swede's faces demonstrates their awareness of the taboo act they are committing. We also see that Robert has a great temper, his violence here foreshadowing his later actions.

The reader is meant to wonder what exactly it is that Robert seeks to hide; what makes him so obsessed with privacy. It is worth noting that the character of Robert Ross was likely named after Robert Baldwin Ross (May 25, 1869 – October 5, 1918), a Canadian journalist and art critic. Ross, like Findley, was a homosexual at a time in history when homosexual acts were illegal. This has led some to speculate whether the character of Robert Ross is a homosexual. Although Findley never states that he is, consider how the duality of private vs. public might have affected Findley personally in regards to his sexuality. Some scholars see this theme in other works by Findley and it is possible that it was a commentary on or personal reflection of his own need for privacy.

As Robert makes his way to Lethbridge, we see the affect the war has had on his hometown. What was once an idyllic hamlet is now a fully functioning cog in the war machine. The public war has changed the private lives of ordinary citizens. Here there is no denial of the war abroad but a participation, albeit indirect, in it.

Robert's connection to his hero, Longboat, and the childhood it represents, is laid to rest as Findley explains Robert's attempt to run like his hero. He collapses and succumbs to jaundice. Later, as Robert looks in the mirror he sees he has yellowed skin, closer to Longboat's skin tone. He is pleased by this. Findley juxtaposes this with Robert now donning his soldier's uniform and preparing to set out for war. Robert's childhood is packed away and he now wears the uniform that will allow him to be a part of adult society. The image of Robert naked before a mirror will be revisited again after Robert has experienced the battlefield.

Mrs. Ross's private feelings about the war and the culture that supports it are made clear when she and Ms. Davenport go to church. Mrs. Ross cannot stand the sermons or the psalms instructing parishioners to forgo their own doubts in favor of keeping a strong public face for the sake of the war effort. She noisily exits the church during the sermon. Again, Mrs. Ross's private emotions are placed in contrast to the public support of the war. She cannot stand the idea of singing about sending one's own children to their death, but knows she cannot publicly state her feelings without the risk of being ostracized. Even Ms. Davenport is uncomfortable accompanying her outside of the church. When a child sees the two women squatting in the snow Mrs. Ross stands to her feet to avoid frightening the child. She restores a public face and with it, a sense of order for the child's benefit.

Robert's orders to kill the horse mirror the death of his sister, Rowena. Once again, an innocent life must be lost. When Robert is ordered to kill the horse he goes to the bathroom. He is unable to urinate. Contrast this with the scene where Robert orders his men to urinate on a piece of cloth to save their lives. At that point it is other, less experienced soldiers who are unable to urinate due to being too scared. Robert is unable to kill the horse in one shot. Instead he unloads his pistol's entire clip. The horse's suffering is prolonged, angering him even more. The image of a chair falling enters his mind as he kills the horse, invoking Rowena's memory. This act cements Robert's hatred of violence as well as his desire to save the horses later in the novel. Findley also reminds us of the relative age of many of these soldiers. When Robert tells the Battery Sergeant Major that he would like to buy them both a drink, the soldier responds that he promised his mother he would not drink. Many of these "men" are barely older than 18. Consider this fact when Findley details the horrors they face later in the novel.

Findley also introduces what proves to be the beginning of Mrs. Ross's unraveling. We learn of her dead brother, Monty, and how he died. As a result, Mrs. Ross is haunted by visions of trolleys jumping their tracks. Since Robert has left she solemnly waits for his return. This is in direct opposition to what we might expect given her last conversation with her son. When Mr. Ross takes her on an overnight train ride to see Robert she asks Mr. Ross to read from Huckleberry Finn. Findley includes the line "Come on back to the raf', Huck honey" to suggest that she wishes Robert to return home and perhaps regrets the last words they had.