26 July 2008

29. The Things They Carried

When I look at the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I often wonder why some books are included. I suppose some books are included because there is a person for every book, right? Well, in the case of The Things They Carried – it is more that there is “A” book for EVERY person. This book provides insights into the Viet Nam conflict that I have never encountered in four decades of reading. As a Baby Boomer who grew up in the shadows of the Kennedy assassination and the Viet Nam conflict, I knew these people. I knew boys who went to Viet Nam. I knew boys who did not return. I knew boys who returned, but never came home. I knew the people in Tim O’Brien’s novel. And it was sad to remember them. Still, it was beautiful to remember them through Tim O’Brien’s memories. It was hard; it was easy. This book was an experience I am grateful for having. Although I suppose it is possible that there are other opinions, I cannot imagine it.

O’Brien repeats the words the things they carried many times in the novel. It is this repetitiveness that helps us understand what the men carried and why. For example:

The things they carried:
Were largely determined by necessity
Was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty
Varied by mission
Were determined to some extent by superstition
USO stationery and pencils and pens
Themselves with poise, a kind of dignity
All the emotional baggage of men who might die
Shameful memories
And the list continues

While telling the stories of the men who served together in Viet Nam, O’Brien tells us about the value of stories – be they real or imagined:
Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. (p. 40)

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain. (pp. 179-180)

Finally, O’Brien leaves the reader to think about war and the harsh consequences. He reminds us that when a man died, there had to be blame. Who gets the blame? The idiots who made the war. The rain, the river, the mortar rounds, people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. Blame whole nations, blame God. Blame an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote. Ultimately – the causes were immediate. A moment of carelessness or bad judgment or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever. (pp. 198-199 – words have been edited out by me, but the meaning is not changed).

This book made me think. Do we belong in Iraq? Are we immune to the body counts? Unless they are our own? Did we ever belong in Iraq? If we did, how do we get out? If we didn’t, how do we get out? How do we best honor those who have given their lives? What did they carry?

If I never read another book on the list of 1001, I am thankful for the list because it led me to this book. I love you Uncle Rick and I am sorry for all the things that you are still carrying.

TITLE: The Things They Carried
AUTHOR: Tim O’Brien
PAGES: 273
TYPE: Fiction
RECOMMEND: Yes, one of the best books I have ever read.



Marie said...

I agree, it is an intensely moving and raw and thought-provoking book. It's always so important to question what our leaders do in our name and to remember those who make the sacrifices for them and for us.

Amy said...

Wow, I've never heard of this book, but I really want to read it now. Thanks for the review.

Library Cat said...

When you read it, let me know what you think.