Sometimes a sentence just makes me stop and marvel—something about the wood being full of green twilight was so evocative that it captured me right away. As it happens, the “they” in this sentence is Claude Wheeler, the Nebraskan farm lad we’ve followed so far, and the enigmatic David Gerhardt, a New Yorker who’s been assigned to Claude’s unit to replace the lieutenant who died at sea. Gerhardt mystifies and intimidates Wheeler: though they are equal in rank, Gerhardt has experience of war that Claude does not. Gerhardt speaks French fluently and chats amiably with the locals, convincing his French landlady to take Claude in for a few days before they leave for the trenches. Claude feels a strange sense of competitiveness at first, but their chat in the woods and their quiet walk back in this twilight cements a friendship between them.
Beyond the happiness of this small friendship, though, war is hell. Also living in this French cottage is a Belgian girl whose mother is dead, and who refuses to learn any language but her native Walloon. Days, she plays with kittens in the woodshed, and at night she shrieks in her sleep with the memories of terrors that no child should have had to endure. The old French couple, themselves, mourn the death of their two sons—it is an empty world before them now, and a house full, not of their son’s laughter, but of the creak of American army boots and the wailing of a motherless girl. Cather does not describe the loneliness they must feel when Claude and his men move out, but she hardly needs to. On the road to the trenches, Claude meets a dying woman and her children, including a nursing infant. The oldest child, an eleven year old girl, explains that her father died several years ago, and comments coldly that the infant is “a Boche” (a German)…Claude understands immediately the crime implied in those two words, and feels a sense of horror (I am sorry to say that his revulsion is so great that he feels a loathing for the blameless infant), which is quickly replaced by the simple activity of finding food and shelter for a family who walks out of the novel and will not, I think, be seen again. France is full of these families now.
Even now, they’ve still seen no combat (having spent several days at the trenches), but the nearness and the banality of death is strangely clear to these new arrivals. While bathing in a deep puddle, one of them feels a sharpness at his feet–he reaches down and pulls up a German helmet. Suddenly foul bubbles surge up to the surface of the water—one of the officers shouts that they’ve opened the lid on a “cemetery”, and they all splash out of the puddle rapidly, and post a blackly humorous sign advising against swimming. I don’t know what I think they ought to have done…unearth the body to give it a “proper” burial? Is a plot dug by human hands any more proper than this graveyard carved out by violence? I wonder what all this will do to Claude, in the end. What can such a war do, after all, but deaden the inside of a heart? So many stories of war make it sound thrilling, or glamorous, or inspiring. I can’t see how it does anything but grind the human soul into dust.
Despite so many loose ends still untied, I’m very close to the end. I think my next post will be the review, and I can’t say I’m settled on my opinion of this novel yet. We’ll see what Cather does with endings.