Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - My Thoughts

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

In April I ordered this book, after having been convinced that it was a book that simply had to be read by everyone.  Kristen Tsetsi, author of Homefront, cited it in my interview with her as did Tatjana Soli, author of The Lotus Eaters, in my interview with her. 

Knowing that I was not going to have time to read the book for a while, and knowing that it was something that would appeal to my dad, I loaned him the book.  He wrote a wonderful review for Lit And Life and I'm by no means going to try to top that one.  But after discussing my thoughts on the book with a Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness, I wanted to share them here as well.

My dad talked about the opening chapter in which O'Brien details the things the soldiers carried.  This chapter really drew me into the book as well. 
"To carry something was to hump it, as when lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps.  In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive."  
It was these burdens that made the listing of the actual physical burdens so much more than a mere listing.
"They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die.  Grief, terror, love, longing - these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight."
"They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried."
The stories that have really stayed with me were:

"On The Rainy River": a story about the narrator's decision not to run to Canada to avoid the war and how this made him feel like a coward more than evading the war would have.

"How To Tell A True War Story": here O'Brien really begins to delve into what is the truth about the stories of war.
"A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, not suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.  If a story seems moral, do not believe it.  If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie."

"Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong": in this story one of the soldiers sneaks his girlfriend into camp.  What becomes of her is not in the least what you might expect but it is equally horrifying, especially if you have always believed that wars would never happen if women were in charge.

"The Man I Killed": the narrator kills his first enemy soldier and then is paralyzed imagining who he might have been and who he might have become.  This incident will come back again in other stories and make the reader wonder exactly what really happened.

"Speaking of Courage" and "In The Field": both stories are related to the same incident.  "Speaking of Courage" is the story of one soldier's adjustment to life back home, particularly in light of what he thinks happened during this incident.  "In The Field" is the narrator's take on that same incident and his own culpability.

The Things They Carried is a work of fiction.  One that does not read or feel like a work of fiction.  Having been written by someone who was there, the reader cannot help but feel that much of what O'Brien writes is based on someone's reality of the life of a soldier and the aftermath of war on soldiers.  There is no other way to end this post other than to say to you "read this book."  It is beautifully written and eloquent in a way that few books about war are.

Thanks to Jennie Nash, who first made me aware of this book.  It is one that will remain on my shelves, one that will be read again.


  1. I hope you won't mind us adding your review link to the War Through the Generations war blog's Vietnam War book reviews page?!

  2. I bought this book a few months ago after reading several rave reviews, and really need to make the time to read it. It sounds utterly excellent, and the fact that it focuses on a war that I find endlessly interesting is also a boon for me. I will have to let you know what I think about it, and I am glad that you loved it!

  3. Yes! I read this as part of a literature class a while back. So very moving! I hadn't been aware of it till then and I hope that more people will discover it and read it.

  4. I read this book in college and really enjoyed it then. Its been so long, that I'm thinking its time for a re-read. I loved your post about it - definitely made me remember a great book. Thanks!

  5. I have a copy of The Things They Carried on my shelf. It's been there for years, but I've yet to read it. I think you've convinced me to try to work it in sometime soon.

  6. I checked this one out and didn't get to it. After reading this post I can see I made a huge mistake and must quickly rectify this!!

  7. I LOVED this book, and the audio version was fantastic as well.

  8. Serena got to you first, I see. I was going to ask the same question. ;)

    I recently got my hands on a copy of this book, and I'm definitely reading it soon for the Vietnam War challenge. I've heard nothing but good things about it, and I already love O'Brien's writing.

  9. This is such a well loved and recommeneded book in the world of bookstores. I remember selling it quite often to many schools and bookclubs.

  10. I am so glad you ended up reading this one. I gave the book to my dad as a gift years ago but didn't read it until this past summer. It was such an amazing book. I'm still kicking myself for not reading it sooner.

  11. -->"if you have always believed that wars would never happen if women were in charge"
    Oh RIGHT! egads.
    REading all these reviews has made me aware that I didn't read this remembering the story titles, (chapters?) and I find I have to keep going back and trying to pair up which story went with what title. I was so moved by his love for his 5th grade classmate and how he linked it back to the story of when he almost ran away to Canada. His writing skill - all the 'techniques' that worked so brilliantly... I now can't find WHICH story it was and the Table of COntents doesn't give me any clues. huh