The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a collection of short stories that revolve about a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War. The most interesting thing about the book to me is that Tim O’Brien is a Vietnam War veteran and he puts himself into the book as a character. He needs to tell his story, he needs to release the memories and yet, he doesn’t quite want to give a factual account of what happened to him and his friends there. So instead we get war stories that toe the line of memory but are distinctly stories, embellishments, full of character development and story arc. Ultimately O’Brien defends or sells the idea of meta-fiction to the reader because he clearly states that telling stories can save the lives of the men (and women) who have dealt with the horrors of war. As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran (who consequently lost his leg, arm and three fingers on his right hand), I wholeheartedly support the idea of sharing the burden with those who haven’t experienced it. There’s a lot to be learned from war stories, and most of the time it has absolutely nothing to do with war but everything to do with humanity.The whole book is pretty great but here are two of my favorite stories in the collection.
“The Things They Carried”
The first story of the book introduces the reader to all the characters that we’re going to see throughout the novel/collection of short stories. It talks about what the characters literally carry and the literal weight of those objects (which gives us characterization of what their jobs are and who they are as people), and also the things that they carry emotionally. O’Brien has a way with words. This story/book is about war, but ultimately it’s about the characters and how they deal with war. One set of lines that caught my attention was: “They carried their reputations. They carried a soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” So yeah, that made me sit and think for a while about humanity, war and the fact that we’re all just spinning on this giant ball of mud alone in the universe and yet can’t get along because we’re human and we’re flawed and afraid of others’ judgement of us. Sad. This story is fantastic in that it brings out a huge cast of characters, we learn a lot about what has already happened to them and there are hints as to what will happen to each of them next. It’s a must read of the collection.
“The Sweetheart of Tra Na Bong”
My favorite story of the collection is probably the most unbelievable, but that’s because it’s an allegory for something more. It starts with a frame story, one of the characters (Rat Kiley) tells a story of how one of the higher ranking guys makes a joke that they’re so far removed from the action that they could theoretically bring their girlfriends out to visit them. Well, according to Rat Kiley, one guy in their platoon did just that. Legend has it (or Rat Kiley, who seems to spin tall tales throughout the book), that Mark Fossie arranged for his long time girlfriend (think elementary school long-time) Mary Anne to meet him at the camp, arriving with the food rations via helicopter. Mary Anne immediately appears out of place with her pink sweater set and her demure skirt. However, when injured come into the base she quickly drops the feminine helpless act and very calmly and dexterously helps to treat and save the men. She’s calm in the face of panic and doesn’t shy away from the blood and gore. Her boyfriend couldn’t be more different. From there her transformation continues. She cuts her hair short, she grows interested in the Vietnamese culture–learning what she can about the people and the food (while her bf attempts to remain isolated from anything not America), and she even starts going on night patrols with some of the other guys–excited to hold a gun and giddy over the possible threat of danger. All of this confuses and I think infuriates Fossie. He wants his submissive Mary Anne back, not the secretive, war-like woman in front of him. He plans to send her back home. But even that seems to backfire on him because she talks about how she wants to travel before marrying him. Then the marriage even comes into question. Finally everything backfires for Fossie when Mary Anne disappears. You need to read the story to find out what happens to her. It’s a good one.
Those are the only two stories I’m going to touch on in the review but I really love this book. If you’re a fan of short stories, you’ll definitely be pulled in, even if you’re not a fan of war stories.
I’m using this book for the first time with my Power and Honor Unit. We’re tying these war stories in with WWI poetry, Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf. We’re examining what is considered honorable, how has that changed over time and also can power and honor be contradictory. I’ll let you know how it goes!