In the prologue we meet Robert Ross, a lone figure seated near a scene of chaos and destruction. He wears a tattered military uniform and is holding a pistol between his knees as he sits. A nearby black horse and a black dog appear to be his only companions. A battle has recently taken place. An abandoned train sits on the tracks nearby as a fire burns. Robert approaches the horse and places reins around its head. The dog accompanies him as well. The three companions set out when the horse whinnies. Other horses, in a cattle car on the abandoned train, reply. Robert indicates his understanding and decides to free these horses, about 150 in total. The freed horses, Robert, his horse, and the dog set out as a red moon rises in the night sky.
As Part One begins, Findley introduces Robert and the Ross family in a style reminiscent of flashbacks in film. Robert waits at a train station with a suitcase as snow falls. He flinches at the sound of the train itself. He waits until all the men have gotten off the train and wishes for no one to see him. He notices three women, one of whom makes eye contact with him. He is reminded of Heather Lawson, a woman he once knew who had asked him to fight another man because that man was in love with her. Robert remembers that he found the whole situation absurd and told Heather that he had no interest in fighting another man he had never met and with whom she was not in love. Robert remembers how she made a scene at the time and asked that he never see her again. Robert wonders why women behave this way and what it is they want from men.
After everyone has left the station Robert is approached by the station manager, who asks if Robert is there to enlist for the field artillery. Robert says that he is. The station manager wishes him luck and retires to the station office. Robert remains on the platform for a long time, until the snow turns to rain, unsure of what his next move should be. A white dog appears beyond a fence and watches him, as if waiting to see what he does before it makes its next move. Robert steps into a puddle and remains there. Rowena, his sister, was buried just the day before.
Rowena Ross, Robert’s older sister, was born with hydrocephalus, and Robert was tasked with taking care of her. One day she fell out of her wheelchair onto a hard concrete floor in the stable while Robert was supposed to be keeping an eye on her. Instead, Robert was in his bedroom “making love to his pillows.” In the stable, Rowena housed ten pet rabbits in special cages that Robert had made for them. After her death their mother tells Robert that the rabbits must be killed. Robert argues that it is unnecessary and illogical but she insists that they be killed and that Robert be the one to kill them.
Rowena is buried on a Thursday morning. Robert notices Peggy’s boyfriend at the funeral. He is in uniform and this is the first time that Robert has the idea of enlisting, to escape from the pain and guilt of his sister’s death. Robert spends the afternoon sitting in Rowena’s wheelchair in his room while the family is downstairs. During dinner the subject of the rabbits is brought up again. Mr. Ross seems to favor leniency, suggesting that the rabbits can be given to a butcher. Mrs. Ross insists that Robert be the one to kill them. When asked why, she answers that it must be this way because Robert loved Rowena. She retires to her bedroom where she begins drinking. The family is aware of this but no one says anything.
Mr. Ross calls a man named Teddy Budge to come to the house and sends Peggy’s boyfriend in their car, the Reo Roundabout, to pick him up. When Robert notices the man coming to the house and entering the stable, he runs down and assaults Teddy Budge, who swiftly defends himself and knocks Robert down, bruising him badly. Robert is carried away while Mr. Ross signals to Teddy Budge to continue with the task he was summoned to complete.
Robert sits in the bathtub, nursing his many bruises, as Mrs. Ross sits nearby smoking a cigarette and drinking. She tells him of a day when he was little and he returned home wearing ice skates and someone else’s sweater. He was covered in bruises. She remarks that he always bruised easily and was such a serious child. She begins laughing, making Robert uncomfortable. Finally she stops and wipes a tear from her eye before observing that it’s funny how some people fall and nothing happens while some bruise so badly. Finally, she tells Robert that she knows that he thinks Rowena belonged to him but that she didn’t. She tells him that no one belongs to anybody and that we are all at the mercy of strangers. Mrs. Ross is aware that Robert is thinking of enlisting. She tells Robert that he can go to hell. “I’m not responsible," she says, “I’m just another stranger. Birth I can give you - but life I cannot. I can’t keep anyone alive. Not any more.” Robert is mortified. Minutes seem to tick by before she leaves him there. It is the last time they will be in each other’s presence. He leaves in the morning before she wakes.
Robert enlists and is immediately dispatched to Alberta where he begins his training. Robert keeps mostly to himself but is seeking a mentor to teach him the will he will require to kill another person. His days are spent performing regular drills. The rigidity reminds him of boarding school, an experience he did not enjoy. His only solace is in running. He simply chooses a direction on the horizon and begins.
One day Robert is out running when he notices a coyote running with him. He decides to follow the animal in its path, keeping a careful distance best for pursuit. The coyote does not seem to have a clear destination in mind at first but eventually leads Robert to a small valley. The valley contains a small pond where the coyote drinks and rests for a short while. Robert watches the coyote from the opposite shore. Finally having satiated its thirst, the coyote climbs to the opposite side of the valley and turns to look directly at Robert, acknowledging that it has known he was there the entire time. It barks three times, which Robert interprets as meaning that he is free to drink the water in safety. It then howls before departing. Robert is reprimanded for returning to his barracks late. His punishment is that he is confined to barracks for two weeks. In the evenings he sits on the roof and looks out over the prairie, wishing someone would howl.
Robert meets a man named Eugene Taffler while searching for two wild horses that escaped from a pack he had been tasked with bringing in. Robert is accompanied on his search by a man named Clifford. While searching for the two horses they notice a man in the distance on the prairie. The man is undressed down to his waist and is throwing rocks at bottles a short distance away. The man never misses a bottle. He is accompanied by a horse and a dog. The dog notices Robert and Clifford and the man waves them over. Robert is not keen on meeting the man but learns that he is Eugene Taffler, a war hero and former star athlete. While throwing the stones, Taffler remarks that the distance between one army’s line and the other's is often no more than 100 yards. Taffler asks if he can be of assistance to the two men but Robert assures him that they do not require help. Robert leaves with Clifford hurriedly. He is intimidated by Taffler but feels he has found the mentor he was looking for, a man who can reduce the act of war to throwing stones.
Robert’s parents begin to send him gifts by mail such as scarves and socks for the winter. Most of these gifts Robert gives to others. His parents also send him useful items such as field glasses and compasses. Robert writes to his father and requests a pistol be bought for him and sent to him. This request alarms his father who is bewildered to find that a weapon has not been given to his son. Findley explains that at this time in history, the army was not a professional one but a people’s army. Each soldier was responsible for purchasing his own uniform and pistol.
Robert finds himself pressured into going to a brothel in the nearby hamlet of Lousetown. Lousetown is little more than a collection of houses in an isolated area. There is a general store run by a man named Oscar Dreyfus. Dreyfus’s wife, Maria, is the madam of the house next door. Beyond Maria’s house is the garbage dump. The three main houses are known colloquially as “Drygoods”, “Wet goods”, and “Spoiled goods”. Robert is shamed into going to the brothel by the other men. The other men accompanying him drink from a bottle of sherry. When they arrive one hands the bottle to Robert and tells him to finish it. He drains it dry, thinking that he might like to be drunk. He has never drank in his life before and the smell of the bottle reminds him of his mother’s room at home. Robert notices a dog and a horse tied outside the brothel and recognizes them as belonging to Eugene Taffler. He places the bottle of sherry by the hitching post with a stone on top.
As the novel opens Findley immediately introduces a theme that will reoccur throughout: Robert Ross's connection to animals. The horse and dog are both black in color, and at several points in the novel, Robert encounters a white dog. Coupled with the red moon that Findley states has risen in the sky, a sense of foreboding is established. This scene will be revisited toward the end of the novel.
As Part One begins, we see Robert at the train station. He is careful to make sure no one sees him. When a woman makes eye contact with him, he is reminded of Heather Lawson, whose advances he rejected. This demonstrates that Robert is intensely private, fearing any kind of exposure. Robert's inherent shyness and desire to protect his privacy are tested in the face of the war. Whereas domestic civilian life allowed Robert to maintain any secrets, there is no room for privacy in war: joys and grief become national instead of individual, and secrets are uncovered. As Robert realizes this, his own grip on sanity will be tested. This contrast between private and public will appear throughout the novel and will affect other characters.
Findley makes a conscious effort to distance this novel from other war literature. Instead of focusing on great detail to capture the experience, Findley utilizes multiple points of view to try to capture how the experience of war feels. In that respect, the privacy of the characters is invaded by us, the readers. Some scholars see this as an attempt by Findley not simply to detail the events of a major event, but to provide some context as to what the event means. Meaning is something that seems to preoccupy much of Findley's writing style.
Rowena's death causes Robert a great deal of inner guilt. He enlists largely to escape these feelings; private emotions force Robert into the public sphere. Rowena herself is an obvious symbol of innocence. She is helpless without aid but manages to derive joy from the animals to which she has grown close. Robert fails to save her life because he is in his bedroom masturbating, itself a highly private act. Because of this indulgence he neglects his more public responsibility toward his sister. Here, Robert's relationship to his sexuality is associated with guilt and shame. This theme will be revisited when Robert makes a trip to the brothel in Lousetown.
The destruction of innocence, a theme that pervades the novel, is introduced here. After Rowena's death Mrs. Ross instructs Robert to kill the rabbits she had kept. Robert refuses and Mr. Ross invites Teddy Budge to kill them instead. When Robert sees Budge approaching the barn he races to stop him, losing a fight in the process. The loss of innocence begins with Rowena's death and will continue with the lives lost in the war, Robert's rape, as well as the horses Robert tries to save in Part Five. The image of Rowena falling from her wheelchair is also revisited throughout the novel. The words "fell" or "fallen" are used frequently. Some scholars see an allusion to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe in Rowena's name; the Lady Rowena is a heroine in that story.
In the aftermath of being beaten by Teddy Budge, Robert soaks in a bathtub. His mother invades his privacy here, sitting next to him as he bathes. She drinks and we can see that she is struggling with alcoholism. Robert is uncomfortable with his Mother's presence and while the scene could connote a momentary maternal bond, it is instead derailed by an uncomfortable conversation. Mrs. Ross sits, drinking and smoking, both acts symbolic of the adult world while Robert lies in a bathtub, perhaps a metaphor for the womb. He is the child and she the adult, roles that are reinforced by the story she tells him about his childhood.
Robert's encounter with the coyote is later paralleled when he sees a German soldier on the battlefield. After losing the coyote in a small valley he spots it climbing out on the far side of a pond. It barks at him three times and Robert interprets this as permission to drink from the water safely. The message is that a true predator knows when to kill and when to spare. Robert will encounter the same situation when he discovers that the German sniper could have killed him, too. When Robert is reprimanded for returning to his barracks too late, he sits on the roof and wishes someone would howl as the coyote did. The natural world presents a freedom and authenticity that Robert does not find in his army life.
The character of Eugene Taffler is introduced as a potential hero for Robert, someone he can learn from. Indeed, that is Robert's wish. The man has reduced warfare to the act of throwing stones. In this Robert sees a means of distancing himself from the act of taking lives. If he can think of it simply as throwing a stone at a bottle, perhaps he can stomach the idea.