Reaching Understanding through Non-Verbal Communication

in Timothy Findley’s “War” and “About Effie”

By Geoff Peters, November 14, 1999


            The two stories “War” and “About Effie” from Timothy Findley’s Dinner Along the Amazon are both told by the same child narrator, Neil. In each of the stories Neil attempts to make sense of a mystery of the adult world. In “War” Neil tries to understand the adult world of war, and explain why it seems that his father has betrayed him, and in “About Effie” Neil tries to understand the mystery of Effie’s strange need to wait for a man in a thunderstorm. Neil reaches an understanding of each of these mysteries in a similar way: through observation of non-verbal clues from adults. However, Neil’s own attempts to communicate non-verbally through his behaviour are unsuccessful. Taken as a whole, these two stories show how very important non-verbal communication is in child-adult relationships.

            In “About Effie” Neil’s most significant impression of Effie is created when she looks at him. Neil tells how when he first meets the new maid, she looks at him with such meaning that it scares him: “. . .the way you’ll know her is this: she’ll look at you as if she thought you were someone she was waiting for, and it will probably scare you. It did me” (82).  Neil describes the first time he meets Effie in terms of the way they look at each other, saying “The first time I saw her, she saw me first” (82). Neil is shocked by this new maid, not only because she gives him such a profound look, but also because she bursts into tears upon seeing him.

            Neil tries to make sense of why Effie would become so emotional upon seeing him, and tries to discover more about this mysterious person for whom she is waiting. But her case does not fit neatly into Neil’s preconceived ideas about maids and why they would “break up” in such a way. Neil explains, “I’d seen maids break up like that before, when they didn’t like Toronto and wanted to go home. They just sat around just waiting all the time for some guy on a horse. I soon found out that I was wrong, though” (83). For Neil the mystery of Effie is deepened each time he learns more about the man for whom she is waiting. He does not have a name but is simply called ‘him’ as Neil explains, “The man she was waiting for certainly didn’t sound like any man I’d ever heard of. She just called him ‘him’ and sometimes it was even ‘they’, as if there were a thousand of them or something” (83).  Neil learns that this mysterious man Effie is waiting for comes during a thunderstorm, on a big black cloud, when there is music. Neil finds that this fantasy is very unusual: “All those other men always come on horses – white horses. Not Effie’s. A big black cloud. I felt pretty strange when she came out with that one” (86).

            Even though  Neil cannot fully understand Effie at the beginning of the story, he is reassured by the non-verbal communication that goes on between them. Neil looks at Effie’s face and sees a smile: “Then she smiled. Boy, that was certainly some smile” (84).  Neil is also reassured by Effie’s willingness to open the doors of the adult world to him, to show him how to make tea. But after showing him how to make tea, Effie again looks at Neil, and Neil reaches a deeper understanding of her mystery. He describes the look, “Then she looked at me and all of a sudden I felt it. That it wasn’t just some knight in shining armour that she had in mind. Or some crazy man on a black cloud, either. No, sir. Whoever he was, he surely was coming. You could tell that just from the way she looked” (88).

            Two weeks later, when Neil wakes up in the middle of a thunderstorm, he hears music. Knowing immediately that the conditions are right for Effie’s “man” to come, he gets out of bed and seeks out his mother. Together they find Effie singing and crying to herself. But again, Effie communicates to Neil through her smile, reassuring him that she is doing what is best for her. Neil describes Effie, “All the time she sort of rocked to and fro to the sound of the music. She was crying – but she had that wonderful smile” (91). 

Throughout the story Effie continues to give non-verbal clues that help Neil to understand her. At story’s end, when Neil asks Effie to tell him who the man actually is, she seems unable to explain in words. Instead, she gives Neil a hug. This hug is enough for Neil to understand that the man, whoever he is, is not to be feared. He reassures the reader that Effie’s fantasy is not a cause for concern: “Don’t be scared. This man, I don’t know who he is, but if it’s Effie he wants then he’s all right” (93).

            In “War”, a second story by Timothy Findley, Neil again tries to understand a mystery of the adult world. Unlike in “About Effie”, however, his own attempts at communication are not successful and the adults give him few verbal or non-verbal clues. Neil is unable to understand why war makes his father act strangely, and his resulting anguish leads him to a conflict with his father. As this conflict develops, Neil makes attempts to attract his father’s attention non-verbally, but these efforts are misunderstood.

            Neil feels betrayed by his father when he learns that his father has joined the army. This sense of betrayal is enhanced because Neil does not understand what war truly is. He cannot comprehend that his father’s sense of duty compels him to join the army, and he thinks that “ the army you always went in a trench and got hurt or killed” (69).  Neil also sees the war as something that will prevent his father from fulfilling his promise, to teach Neil how to skate: “I suddenly remembered that my dad had promised to teach me how to skate that year...But if he had to go off to some old trench in France, then he’d be too far away” (70). What is even more upsetting to Neil is the fact that his father does not write to him to tell him that he is going to war; Neil finds out second-hand from his older brother, Bud. Neil says, “He hadn’t even told me. He didn’t even write it in his letter he’d sent me…But he’d told Bud, he’d told Bud but I was the one he’d promised to show how to skate” (70).

            Emotionally upset with his feelings of betrayal, and somehow trying to attract his father’s attention, Neil hides in the barn all night only to be found by a policeman the next morning. Neil is at a loss to explain verbally to the policeman the depth of his childhood anguish. When the policeman asks “Why did you come up here in the first place?”, Neil attempts to explain why he is upset: “I wanted to hide on my dad.” But the policeman cannot comprehend why Neil would wish to hide on his father and thinks it is because Neil is scared of the war: “He laughed. ‘Is that why you hid? Because of the war?’ ‘Because of my dad’” (73). Neil tells the reader, “I could have told you he wouldn’t understand” (73).

            When Neil’s father appears at the farm, Neil is unable to communicate in words to him how he feels, and instead decides to wage a war on him with stones to express his anger. At the beginning of the conflict Neil’s father makes a plaintive attempt to ask Neil what is wrong, but he does not understand that as an upset child Neil can no longer communicate with his father verbally. Neil’s extent of communication with his father is through violence, using the stone throwing as a means of keeping his father’s attention: “I hit his back with another stone. I had to make sure he knew I was there” (77). Neil turns the stone throwing into an imaginary war complete with battle tactics and trenches: “I began to think that was pretty clever and that maybe I’d be pretty good at that war stuff myself. Field Marshal Cable. I put myself into a little trench of hay and piled some up in front of me. When my dad came up over the top of the ladder, he wouldn’t even see me and then I’d have a good chance to aim at him” (78).

            After his father has fallen unconscious and Neil’s “war” is over, both Neil’s father and mother show how unwilling they are to take responsibility to help resolve the conflict verbally. His mother shrugs off responsibility for the incident to his father: “She said that he would tell me all about it” (80). But when Neil and his father sit alone together his father does not take the initiative to try and explain why he didn’t write to Neil about the war. In fact, he avoids the subject of war altogether and instead says he is going away: “Right then the thing never got settled. Not in words, anyway” (81). Neil is forced to resolve the conflict on his own.

After two years pass, Neil gains enough maturity that he finally accepts and understands his father. The photograph containing the image of himself and his rock-wounded father captures both Neil’s naivete at the time and the sadness of his father’s war obligation. Through looking at this photograph Neil realizes and accepts that the incident was truly not his father’s fault. The non-verbal image contained in the photograph provides the key to Neil’s understanding.

            In “War” Neil’s attempts to communicate non-verbally through his behaviour are ineffective. However, in both stories Neil reaches understanding through powers of observation, even when the adults are unable to communicate through words. In reaching understanding, Neil takes a step towards adulthood himself. Through the process of looking at Effie’s smiles and looking at his father’s wounded face in the photograph, Neil is able to decode the mystery of their actions.


Works Cited

Findley, Timothy. Dinner Along the Amazon. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1996.


This work copyright 1999 by Geoff Peters, Simon Fraser University