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|Publisher||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
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|Publisher||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories by Tim O'Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. It was first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990. Many of the characters are semi-autobiographical, sharing similarities with characters from his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. O'Brien dedicated The Things They Carried to the men of the Alpha Company with whom he fought during the war.
The Things They Carried has received critical acclaim and has been established as one of the preeminent pieces of Vietnam War literature. It has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010. It has received multiple awards such as France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, as well as being a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
O’Brien has expressed surprise at how the book has become a staple in middle schools and high schools, stating that he ‘certainly hadn’t imagined fourteen year-old kids, eighteen year-olds, those even in their early twenties reading the book.’
We are privy to a conversation between Cross and O’Brien, reminiscing about the war and about Martha. O’Brien asks if he can write a story about Cross, detailing his memories and hopes for the future; Cross agrees, thinking that perhaps Martha will read it and come find him.
A series of unrelated memories from the war narrated from O’Brien’s point of view, Spin showcases the fact that wartime is not necessarily a steady onslaught of violence, but also includes moments of camaraderie and beauty: a joke of a hate letter to the Draft Board; learning a rain dance between battles.
O’Brien gets drafted straight out of college. He is reluctant to go to war and considers fleeing the draft; he even goes so far as to make his way towards the Canadian border. Near the border, he encounters an elderly stranger who teaches him the meaning of honor and responsibility, O’Brien, ashamed of his actions, goes to war.
Told in two sections, we see the developing relationship between soldiers Jensen and Strunk. At first regularly antagonized by one another, the two are drawn towards respect and friendship by the stress and horrors of wartime existence. Ultimately, they agree that if one should be wounded, the other must deal the fatal blow as a form of mercy.
O’Brien uses examples of tales from his fellow soldiers to illustrate the fact that truth is a delicate and malleable thing when it comes to telling war stories. After all, anything can be faked... but generally, only the worst events can be proven real. He concludes that in the end, the truth of a story doesn’t matter so much as what the story is trying to say.
In order to mourn Curt Lemon, a man O’Brien did not know well, he shares a brief recollection about a bizarre interaction between Lemon and an army dentist. Lemon, who is afraid of dentists, faints before the dentist can examine him. Later that night, however, he complains of a phantom tooth ache so severe a tooth is pulled - even though it’s perfectly healthy.
O’Brien passes on the legendary (and almost certainly exaggerated) tale of Rat Kiley’s first assignment, near a river called the Song Tra Bong. The area being so isolated, the story goes, one of the soldiers flies his hometown girlfriend in by helicopter. At first, she cooks, cleans, and tends to the soldiers’ wounds... but gradually, she assimilates into Vietnamese guerilla culture and disappears into the jungle.
Regarding superstitions at wartime, O’Brien explains how Henry Dobbins wore the stockings of his girlfriend around his neck to bed, and sometimes to battle. Even when the girlfriend breaks things off, he keeps the stockings around his neck, as their powers have been demonstrated.
The platoon discovers an abandoned building being used as a sort of church, inhabited by monks who bring them food and supplies. The men discuss their relationships with churches, and for the most part, appreciate the interaction with other people and the peace of the building. Henry Dobbins wants to become a priest, but decides otherwise.
O’Brien describes a man he killed in My Khe, as well as the manner in which he killed him. He makes up a life story for the man, torturing himself with the idea that he’d been a gentle soul.
O’Brien’s daughter asks if he killed anyone in the war; he lies to her that he did not. After noting this interaction, he goes on to tell the story of an ambush outside My Khe, in which O’Brien kills a young man who may or may not have wanted to harm him.
The platoon witnesses a young Vietnamese girl dancing through the burned remains of her village, and argue over whether it’s a ritual or simply what she likes to do. Later, Azar mocks the girl, and Dobbins rebukes him.
This follows post-war Norman Bowker, who finds himself at a loss: his girlfriend is married, his friends are dead. He reflects on the medals he won in Vietnam, and imagines telling his father about both these and the medals he did not win. Ultimately, despite the fact that he has no one to share these memories with, he finds catharsis in imagined conversations.
O’Brien confesses that Norman Bowker asked him to write the previous story, and that he hanged himself three years later after being unable to find any meaning in life after the war. O’Brien muses over the suspicion that, without Harvard and writing, he too might have lost the will to live after returning from Vietnam.
When Kiowa is killed on the banks of a river, during a mission led by Jimmy Cross, Cross takes responsibility for his death and writes to Kiowa’s father while the others search for the body - as usual, Azar jokes around at first. Another soldier also feels responsible for the death, as he did not save Kiowa; the story ends with the body being found in the mud and both soldiers left to their guilt.
O’Brien reiterates that the real truth does not have to be the same as the story truth, and that it is the emotions evoked by the story that matter. He admits that the story about killing a man on the trail outside My Khe was false; he merely saw the man die, but wanted to instill the same feelings in the reader that he felt on the trail.
After finishing the story, “In the Field,” O’Brien says, he and his ten year old daughter visit the site of Kiowa’s death with an interpreter. The field looks different from his memory of it, but he leaves a pair of Kiowa’s moccasins in the spot where he believes Kiowa sank. In this way, he comes to terms with his friend’s death.
O’Brien recounts the two times he took a bullet. The first time, he is treated by Rat Kiley, and is impressed with the man’s courage and skill. The second time, he is treated by Kiley’s replacement, Bobby Jorgenson; Jorgenson is incompetent, and nearly kills O’Brien. Furious, O’Brien promises revenge, but can only recruit Azar. They scare Jorgenson by pretending to be enemy soldiers, but when Jorgenson proves that he is no longer a coward, O’Brien lets go of his resentment.
O’Brien tells the second-hand account of Rat Kiley’s injury: warned of a possible attack, the platoon is on edge. Kiley reacts by distancing himself, the stress causing him to first be silent for days on end, and then talk constantly. He has a breakdown about the pressure of being a medic, and shoots himself in the toe to be sent away. No one questions his bravery.
O’Brien remembers his very first encounter with a dead body, that of his childhood sweetheart Linda. Suffering from a brain tumor, Linda dies at the age of nine and O’Brien is deeply affected by her funeral. In Vietnam, O’Brien explains, the soldiers keep the dead alive by telling stories about them; in this way, he keeps Linda alive by telling her story.
The stories "The Things They Carried", "On The Rainy River", "How To Tell A True War Story", "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong", "The Man I Killed", and "Lives of the Dead" were adapted for the theatre in March 2011 by the Eastern Washington University Theatre Department as part of the universities' Get Lit! Literary Festival in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts The Big Read 2011, of which The Things They Carried was the featured novel. The same department remounted the production in December 2011 for inclusion as a Participating Entry in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The production was selected as an alternate for KCACTF Region VII, as well as receiving other KCACTF honors for the production's director, actors, and production staff.
Tim O’Brien is a novelist, short-story writer and Vietnam veteran. The Things They Carried is based upon his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division, 3rd Platoon. O’Brien grew up in Worthington, Minnesota (where some of the stories in The Things they Carried take place). He received a degree in political science from Macalester College and then immediately started military service. O’Brien prefers to refrain from political debate and discourse regarding the Vietnam war, but has become jaded in regards to the ignorance he perceives from the denizens of his home town towards the world. It is in part this ignorance that drove O’Brien to author The Things they Carried. According to O’Brien, "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."
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