Several weeks ago during an email exchange Patti Abbott asked if I had ever read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, as they were reading it currently in her book club. I said I had not, and she suggested that maybe I could read it and offer it up as a forgotten book. I was happy to oblige, and I’m glad I did so because this collection is an epic piece of writing. Maybe it’s hard to classify as “forgotten” given that it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and it really isn’t even all that old considering it was first published in 1990. Nonetheless it is a book that should be kept in the reading public’s consciousness, because it really has a lot to say.
The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories grouped together by a common theme: author Tim O’Brien’s experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. All of the stories are centered on a single platoon of soldiers and deal with their circumstances both during the war and sometimes after. Some of the stories focus on the deaths of certain members of the platoon, as well as how these deaths weigh, in the aftermath, on the survivors. The stories are powerful; at times hilarious, but often heartbreakingly sad. The opening story, which carries the collection’s title, deals not only with the “stuff” the soldiers carry as part of their mission — packs, weapons, assorted gear, etc. — but also the little keepsakes from home. Pictures, letters, comic books, things like that. It is a compelling read. I suspect people who have never faced war, or known warriors, or even sought to educate themselves on the subject at all may find some of this information eye opening. I was fortunate to have a high school history teacher who spoke openly of his time in Vietnam, so while not a surprise, it was still compelling stuff. O’Brien’s writing in this opening piece is particularly razor sharp.
Each piece is different, some offering narrative storytelling while others are essentially essays from O’Brien reflecting on the experience of being in war and how he feels as a writer sharing those experiences, and how the writing has helped him deal with his own role in that dark history. O’Brien writes beautifully, and each piece stands on its own even as the collection flows as well as any novel. The book is a worthy read if only to experience the work of a master craftsman, but it is also much more than that.
In “On the Rainy River” O’Brien tells the story of receiving a draft notice and heading north to Canada, stopping just shy of the border to spend the weekend in a cabin on a lake, his only companion the elderly caretaker. It is a poignant bit of writing, and outlines the struggle of a young man coming to grips with doing the right thing, when there is a “right” thing for himself and a “right” thing for how others in his family will be affected by his actions. It shows that there are no easy decisions to be made, and that sometimes what one may view as cowardice is really a form of steadfast courage. Brilliant stuff.
I read The Things They Carried over the 4th of July weekend, and wrote about it as I was reflecting on the holiday that night. As I wrote the other night, one of the most important things I took from this book is this:
It reminded me that we have been sending young men to die for dubious reasons for decades. It reminded me of the men and women — Marines — I saw when I was consulting on a project at Camp Lejeune, NC, a few years ago, and how amazingly, terribly young they looked. It reminded me of the horrible things these kids endure, and how so many are returned to society unprepared to deal with them, their lives irrevocably changed.
This book, and ones like it, should be required reading for students, right up there with the classics. I think it’s important for young people to understand the toll paid by those who have come before, and I don’t mean that in any jingoistic, “heroic” sense either. Every soldier who has died or been permanently scarred for dubious reasons in some bullshit war is a tragic story, and we all need to be reminded of that to ensure it doesn’t continue to happen. These stories show there is no romance in war, and glory only comes hand-in-hand with tragedy. And just because a soldier returns home, it doesn’t mean the war has loosened its grip. With so many itchy trigger fingers in the halls of power, it is important that we remember these facts.
Different people will take away different things from these stories, and that is part of the beauty. I think I will be recommending this book to people for the rest of my life, and that is saying something.