Forgotten Books: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

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.

See a complete list of this week’s other Forgotten Friday contributions over at Patti Abbott‘s blog. An excellent list, as always! You can also read Patti’s review of the book right HERE.

12 thoughts on “Forgotten Books: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien”

  1. >You've done a fine job reviewing this classic, Chris. The first time I heard about it was during a Creative Nonfiction workshop with Matthew Klam in 2008. He gave us an excerpt from it, and I was blown away. You mention the importance of young people reading this ~ when I went to take it out of the library, it was in the teen section. I could tell the copy had been well read ~ which made me very happy.

  2. >Thanks, Kathleen. I had it with me over lunch at the local Mexican joint, and the hostess asked if I liked the book. I said I did, and I asked her if she'd read it. She said she had; she had to read it in school. I asked her if she liked it, and she said, "Yeah, it was pretty good."I'm assuming it was high school where she had to read it, as she doesn't look old enough to have read it in college!

  3. >This does sound very good. Nice review, Chris.Having been in the Army during the Berlin Crisis, when the U.S. was airlifting food and supplies into west Berlin, and then the wall was put up, Viet Nam was long after my personal military time. I had several friends (Marines) who did tours there, and the stories they told weren't pretty, most of them, but at least they came back in one piece. They were pretty anti-war after their return.I wonder if you have read THE 13TH VALLEY by John M. Del Vecchio? Friends who were there say it's the best Viet Nam book written.

  4. >Richard, I've not read THE 13TH VALLEY, but I plan to hit the used bookstore over lunch today and I just added it to my list of things to look for. A friend of mine who really likes THE THINGS THEY CARRIED said Crumley's ONE TO COUNT CADENCE is also very good. I have it, but haven't read it yet.

  5. >Okay, so I am reading Nixonland right now and learning so much about this part of our history… I recommend it if you can read non-fiction during the summer. 🙂

  6. >Nixonland — duly noted! By the way, April, I read The Lost City of Z the other day, and I liked it every bit as much as you said I would!

  7. >Terrific commentary on this book, Chris. When I think of Vietnam, this book has come to represent it for me. I believe O'Brien has refused to classify it as fiction or nonfiction. Which is really a good way of regarding that war – the reality of it being unreal. I'm glad that people are still reading it. As a followup, I'd suggest Anthony Swofford's JARHEAD, about the first Gulf War. A book of poetry in a similar vein by a soldier in the 2nd Gulf War is Brian Turner's HERE, BULLET.

  8. >Ron, thanks for the tip on JARHEADS. I've seen that book before, I'll need to check it out. I haven't read GENERATION KILL either, but I did watch the DVDs of the HBO series. I thought that was excellent too.

  9. >Hey Mr. La Tray, I see you haven't had comments in a while so I don't know if you'll get this, but I just wanted to say thanks for your review. Surprisingly, I couldn't find commentary in a mainstream database, so you've the privelage of being quoted in a student's essay as a secondary quote in a book analysis. Again, thank you. I hope this could be at least mildly encouraging in your reviews.

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