the cover from the first paperback edition of Tim O'Brien's haunting meditation on Vietnam: The Things They Carried (1990)

The Things They Carried

  • Author:  Tim O’Brien  (b. 1946)
  • Rank:  #48
  • Published:  1990
  • Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin
  • Pages:  273
  • First Line:  “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.”
  • Last Line:  “I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film Version:  1998 TV film (A Soldier’s Sweetheart)
  • Awards:  Pulitzer Prize Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Finalist
  • First Read:  March, 1994

The Novel:  I maintain that it is a novel.  My friend Jill insists it is a collection of short stories.    Penguin itself, on the back of the book says “Neither a novel nor a short-story collection.”  That is part of the very brilliance at its core.  There is nothing explicit that interlinks the various stories in this book.  It is not like Winesburg, Ohio, which follows one character through the lives of various others.  It is more like Dubliners, in which one core experience (in that case, the city, in this case Vietnam) links the characters and the actions.  But we feel that these are the same people across the stories, the same people trying desperately to do what they can to escape the shadow of the war.

In the first part, “The Things They Carried”, what begins with a simple catalog of a platoon and the personal effects among their equipment becomes a meditation on what we carry with us.  After a firefight in which one of the platoon is lost, the lieutenant burns the letters from his sweetheart that he has been carrying, that he feels distracted him from the necessary leadership to keep his men alive.  But he knows better: “You couldn’t burn the blame.  Besides, the letters were in his head.”  Or there is the way in which war remains in the head: “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end.”

Then comes “How to Write a True War Story,” a meditation on, not only the work itself, but also all of O’Brien’s works (including the National Book Award winning Going After Cacciato).  He hits right at the core, not only of his own writing experience, but also writing itself: “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.”  But he also realizes that writing a true war story isn’t so much from writing anything that is true:

And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.  It’s about sunlight.  It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do.  It’s about love and memory.  It’s about sorrow.  It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

But these stories aren’t just in Vietnam, but also in its aftermath.  “When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed anyone,” the narrator tells us.  “It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right, which was to say ‘Of course not,’ and then to take her in onto my lap and hold her for a while.  Somebody, I hope, she’ll ask again.”  But he isn’t the only one who has returned to questions he cannot answer: “The war was over and there was no place in particular to go.  Norman Bowker followed the tar road on its seven-mile loop around the lake, then he started it all over again, driving slowly, feeling safe inside his father’s big Chevy.”

O’Brien burst onto the literary scene with his Vietnam writing in If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home in 1973.  He established himself as a major writer with Going After Cacciato.  But these and his other works were really all warm-ups for The Things They Carried.  Within a few years of being published, it was already being taught in universities, both for its vivid look at the war and the after-effects on those who fought in it, but also for its in-depth look at how a writer writes, what he chooses to write and what it does for him.  For, after all, he reminds us, in the final part “The Lives of the Dead”: “But this too is true: stories can save us.”