The Things They Carried & In the Lake of the Woods

and Contemporary
This edition printed in:

The Things They Carried/In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien lies in broken sunlight. A cat lurks in the shadows behind it.

Christmas Concerts Abound

As the Christmas season rapidly approaches, we’re starting to see the posters for all of the Christmas concerts happening in December in our small arts town. There’s carolling, Christmas classics, and Christmas markets, and I already have to remind myself that I do not want to repeat the spooky seasons mistakes. I have to book events mindfully, instead of filling our calendar to bursting.

We’ve had a very quiet week, and while that was great, it’s making it hard to look at next week’s agenda and not panic over the very light smattering if appointments we have. Then there’s Black Friday and the commencement of our in-earnest holiday shopping. Life is about to move pretty fast over the next few weeks and I really hope that I’ve rested enough to be able to take it mindfully and keep calm during it.

The grey camouflage cover of a book. In a yellow box, the titles are listed as They Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien.

Two Novels in One Volume

I actually ordered Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried expecting to get the book in a standalone volume, but instead I got an edition that also included another novel of his, In the Lake of the Woods. I don’t often like to read compendiums that feature more than one book, but the blow was softened by the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition being a beautiful hardcover with a very nice design. Nice margins. Nicely spaced text. I was not struggling to hold the book in my hands or to read crowded type.

When I was initially planning this post, I was only going to review only The Things They Carried, but after reading In the Lake of the Woods, I think they go together thematically and both share a focus on war and the aftermath of it. And so I’ll discuss both here.

A calico tabby lies with a paw out beside a book with a grey camouflage cover.

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried is a novel told in interlinked short stories that specifically follow the fictitious Alpha Company as they fight in the Vietnam war. The book can be considered a work of early metafiction as O’Brien puts himself in the narrative and blends his own experiences into the story of the soldiers. Real events are mentioned and real places. O’Brien literally gives the protagonist his own name, intentionally making the distinction between fact and fiction vague and eventually unimportant.

I found that the titular story was indeed the most powerful as O’Brien lists all of the things the soldiers are carrying with them through the brush, physical objects as well as metaphorical and psychological burdens. O’Brien is a masterful writer who uses simple, direct, stark language to convey the brutality and consequences of warfare as well as its meaninglessness.

Between two tabby cats lies a book with a grey camouflage pattern on the cover: The Things They Carried/In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien.

I will say that I found the metafiction aspect a bit heavy-handed. I don’t have a problem with feeling the author’s presence in a work, but here I found that O’Brien’s narration could sometimes be suffocating and his attempts to obfuscate truth and fabrication could be very forced and repetitive. It also is why the story ‘On the Rainy River’ is so hard to get through and seems so unevenly long compared to the others in the book.

That being said, this book is a powerful classic and if you have any interest in the Vietnam war this is definitely essential reading.

A fawn tabby with a brown nose squints in the sunlight beside The Things They Carried/In the Lake of the Woods.

In the Lake of the Woods

On the surface, In the Lake of the Woods seems like a mystery novel. The plot centres around John Wade whose wife Kathy Wade one day goes missing and is never found. While the action follows the investigation into Kathy’s disappearance, the bulk of the novel is about John Wade’s upbringing, his experiences in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and his failed political campaign. John is running from his role in the war — in fact, he actively tries to erase it. But the truth comes out and, as the world comes down around him, the question becomes did he do something to his wife or did she just walk away?

In the Lake of the Woods isn’t a mystery in the traditional sense, meaning O’Brien doesn’t present one solution to the mystery. Instead, he presents many solutions, including John murdering Kathy, Kathy getting lost and dying in the wilderness, and the disappearance being intentional so that the Wades can start a new life under a new name.

Two tabby cats lounge in dappled sunlight. A book lies between them, and each cat is leaning against the book.

However, if you’re reading this book for the mystery, you’re probably not going to get the most out of it. What this novel is really trying to accomplish is a complex statement on the horrors of war and a specific discussion of the My Lai massacre and its subsequent cover-up. It also delves into the experience of American soldiers after the end of the war, including PTSD and the effect on the families they had trouble returning to.

It’s a bit of a chose-your-own-ending book, and I won’t tell which one I prefer, but I think if you read it you’ll probably guess which is the one O’Brien truly intends.

Four paws from two different cats press their tow beans against the side of a book.

Christmas Selections in December

As November comes to and end, so does my war fiction feature. This year I have finally gotten organized enough to have a selection of Christmas classics to review all December long. It’s going to be an eclectic mix, including a new issue of a classic series of letters, a volume that’s basically a themed commonplace book, an excerpt from a children’s classic, and a very famous work from a very famous poet.

I can’t wait to get started!

In dapple sunlight, a tabby cat squints upwards. Beside her is a grey book and another cat, who is almost out of the frame.

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