Claude Wheeler is the sensitive, blundering young American who finds himself, or his reason for being, through the war (WWI). He is "one of ours" in both the national and the military sense; in the local sense, too, as a "son of the middle border." Wheeler the father, however, is not of the heroic, perhaps more like the unrewarded pioneer type. He had a homesteaded in Nebraska in its earlier days, and remained to grow rich in land-trading. Nominally, a farmer at the time of the story, he leases most of his land and lives in jovial ease, a well-liked and on the whole beneficent citizen. His wife has brought from Vermont, the New England piety and primness. Their three sons differ as resultants from such an union. The oldest, Bayliss, is a prig and a moneygrubber. The youngest, Ralph, has much of his father's careless geniality and interest in the world in general. It is with the second boy, Claude, that we have to do.Claude Wheeler is, in type, a pathetic commonplace individual. As a good, intelligent youngster with a yearning but without a star, he ultimately comes across as a misfit. He is too sensitive to be satisfied with his father's good-humored cynicism, too intelligent to accept his mother's old-fashioned reliance upon an orthodox God. He has vague aesthetic and intellectual possibilities, but not the will to develop them despite an unfavorable environment. He murmurs ineffectually against conditions which a determined rebellion would change for him. And, with the right woman in plain sight, he lets himself be married by the wrong woman. This is fatal for him, since he is the sort of man who must be properly mated or not at all. Enid, indeed, is one of those unendurable wives who are being revealed, or travestied, in so many recent novels-"If Winter Comes," for example. She is prude and bigotted and an egotist; we sigh with relief when she makes off to China, and we and Claude are done with her. Claude is left to close the shell of a home he has built with so pathetic hopes. There remain his mother, who yearns over him but cannot give him happiness, and his work upon the homestead farm, which he performs with a sort of dogged fidelity. He is a failure in his own eyes; his life, it appears, is over.But it is now 1917. For three years the war has been coming closer to America, even the sheltered America of the Middle West. For Claude Wheeler our entrance into the war that is to unmake war, is a life-boat upon the dark welter of existence. He goes to training camp "burning with the first ardor of the enlisted man. He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry." Thus, at the end of Book Three, we see him setting forth for the embarkation, with the blessing of his patriotic parents, and of the woman he ought to have married. So far we have been hearing the story-teller at her best. The scene and persons of the tale are as vivid and indigenous, as full of homely truth, as the scene and persons of "Rose of Dutcher's Coolly," or "Silas Lapham" or "My Antonia."
And with Claude's departure for France the action is complete.