BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

The Things They Carried (20th Anniversary Edition) by Tim O’Brien

Things They CarriedIn spite of the “A Work of Fiction” disclaimer on one of the front pages of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War classic, you’ll probably close the book believing every word contained between the covers to be true. That O’Brien the author names his narrator Tim O’Brien only makes you believe that much more fervently. “I feel guilty sometimes,” says O’Brien the narrator. “Forty-three years old and I’m still writing war stories … But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present.”

A finalist for 1991 Pulitzer Prize and the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 1990 winner of YALSA’s Outstanding Books for the College Bound in Fiction, The Things They Carried returns to the spotlight two decades after its original publication … and how timely given how history continues to repeat itself, one war mistake after another.

Told in almost two dozen pieces filled with overlapping characters, non-linear memories, unsure confessions, and unreliable stories, Things is an elegy on youth and lost innocence, the neverending trauma of war and its obsessively haunting memories, the guilt of survival … and finally a meditation on the permeable, dovetailing border between fact and fiction: “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.”

In the eponymous opening piece, O’Brien the narrator introduces the men with whom he experienced the Vietnam War; by revealing what each carried in his ‘rucksack,’ he shares glimpses into their lives as soldiers and human beings (the two are not necessarily the same …), from Jimmy Cross who carried not-love letters from a college girl named Martha, Henry Dobbins his extra rations, Dave Jensen his personal hygiene products like toothbrush and foot powder, Ted Lavender his extra tranquilizers and “premium dope,” Mitchell Bowker his diary, Rat Kiley his comic books, and Kiowa his illustrated New Testament given to him by his Sunday school teaching father. Half a life later, O’Brien remembers and reinvents the stories again and again.

Reading Things now with too much war in the world (any war is too much war), perhaps the two most memorable pieces are “On the Rainy River,” which O’Brien starts with “This is the one story I’ve never told before.” O’Brien the narrator (like O’Brien the author) is 21, just graduated from Macalester College, on his way to Harvard for graduate school. And on June 17, 1968, “I was drafted to fight a war I hated.” In 20 anguished pages, O’Brien captures the inevitable decision with such immediacy that every potential soldier should read at least this one chapter: “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.”

The other piece is the collection’s final, “The Lives of the Dead,” which begins, “But this too is true: stories can save us.” Writer O’Brien literally resurrects the dead, reclaiming, recreating their stories, starting with the first person he lost, the original love of his life, Linda: “She was dead. I understood that. And yet even as a nine-year-old I had begun to practice the magic of stories.” In middle age, “I want to save Linda’s life. Not her body – her life.” At 43 (and beyond), O’Brien’s own redemption comes “as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”

Us, too. Read. Be saved. And save others as best as we can.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1990, 2010 (special 20th anniversary edition)

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