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Intellect verses Emotion, Historical Breadth Through Empathy, Interaction and a Call to Action The power of the government upon the lives of the characters in “If I Die in a Combat Zone” by Tim O’Brien and “The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich takes place during 1968– 1970. (115, 628) Both stories have protagonists that are used by the state for combat in the Vietnam War. Although both authors were born in Minnesota, the stories’ cultural settings differ greatly. (Hirschberg) O’Brien explicitly details the permutations of the war from a prairie town through rhetorical introspection. The war is persistently front and center in every thought and association. Erdrich’s drama focuses on the relationship between two brothers and their car. The war is ancillary to their story and the social context of marginalized Native American Indians is peripheral. The complexity, ambiguity and stress of that brief period of American history are fully realized through the emotional impact of Erdrich’s dramatic story. The reader experiences more empathy, interaction and a call to action with Erdrich’s characters than the intellectual ponderings occurring in O’Brien’s story. The comparison of the openings of the stories shows O’Brien’s character informing the reader about war through presidential candidates, his induction notice, the merits of war and the possible outcome for the Vietnamese. Erdrich’s character Lyman is describing his restaurant work, the acquisition of the car and road trips with his brother. Lyman mentions that Henry’s “boots filled with water on a windy night” (Erdrich 113) is an obscured mystery that immediately hooks the interest of the reader. The car is personified with the description of it being in “repose.” (Erdrich 114) Readers who have experienced the pride of ownership of a vehicle identify with a car as a family member. The universal iconic image of the road trip
2 evokes joy and freedom and a general feeling of camaraderie. The reader is empathetically on the road trip with the brothers. Engaging the reader with the events in the story is an act of participation. Despite the casual and relaxing activities itemized in O’Brien’s opening the protagonist’s overarching deliberation permeates everything and does not invite empathy easily. Details of O’Brien’s activities are cursory or ancillary to the war topic and not intended to draw in the reader. Intellectual philosophizing is unlikely to peak empathy in the reader. Erdrich has engaged the reader to feel empathy for the characters including the car. O’Brien’s itemizes a preponderance of artifacts of the period compared to Erdrich’s scant references. O’Brien’s listed items as the ambiguous political climate with the approaching election, the uncertain purpose of the war, draft dodging, enthusiastic recruits, student protests and the distinction between a liberal and a pacifist or preserving the order in a community are all recognizable and topical. The reader picks them up and puts them down without further involvement. When Erdrich reveals that Henry signed up for the army instead of being drafted, the reader is compelled to reason why. This provokes the reader to recall what they know about the character. This activity deepens the reader’s further interaction with the story. The reader already knows Henry is out of work and has limited prospects. This can infer the coercive nature of the military. Although not universally common knowledge, it comes as no surprise that the U.S. government could be taking advantage of Henry’s tenuous position. The finding of a 1988 study of post-traumatic stress disorder specifically upon Native American Indians reinforces this aspect. The Department of Veterans Affairs concluded in its study “American Indian Veterans often joined the military as a way to obtain opportunities for education, jobs, and travel not otherwise available to them.” (Matsunaga) The additional evilness of this exploitation connects his allegiance to a nation that has perpetrated genocide against his race. This association captures
3 the immoral beginnings of the nation. The reader sympathizes with Henry’s doomed character profile. This profile along with his indentured service is an indelible image of the history depicted in the story and extends even further back in time. Henry’s unexplained enlistment ended up as an enriched portrayal of political pressure. Erdrich enlisted the reader to complete the picture with minimal but resonant hints. Erdrich has made the reader interact with the story. Erdrich has also provided an inferred insight into the complex nature of military enlistment at the time. The protagonists in each story return from combat. O’Brien’s character continues to ponder the meaning of it all. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything overtly different from the beginning of the story. There are no strong definitive conclusions or lessons. As an essay like story it intends to be comprehended intellectually by “bringing quiet thought to the subject.” (O’Brien 628) Last April on PBS NewsHour, author Tim O’Brien was interviewed for the 20th anniversary of his book “The Things They Carried.” He says he was compelled to express what it felt like to be “twenty one and in a war that he despised.” He spoke about writing during the 45-minute breaks after marches in wartime and knows that even if he had not submitted to the draft he would have ended up writing about his experiences if he had fled to Canada. (Art Beat) This seems to indicate that his propensity is to document. The provided information conveys the full range and experience of a moment in time, but due to the near analytic essay style of O’Brien’s story, the reader’s interaction with the material is limited. Introspection is done in isolation. When contrasted against the drama of Erdrich’s story, its ending resonates with the reader “feeling” the complex effects of the Vietnam War. This reverberation occurs because of the reader’s empathy and the definitive concluding statement. The tragic suicide of Henry is palpable. The reader is even provided with an experience of closure by finally finding out what
4 was meant by his foreshadowed watery boots. This knowledge of Henry gave the reader an opportunity to walk in his shoes. Henry and the car dying together in the river evoke the phrase “being sold down the river.” That phrase originates from slavery and implies betrayal. Although a throwback to a previous era, it is also relevant to the unconscionable sacrifices made by its citizens for its war. Erdrich has provoked a call to action. These are wrongs that need to be corrected. Although O’Brien has clearly indicated that war is wrong, there is less indignation at the end of his story. Ultimately the impact or impression of America during wartime is experienced more fully through dramatic hints rather than an abundance of direct references. The deep historical significance of Erdrich’s tragedy encompasses more than the presented time period. Works Cited Erdrich, Louise. “The Red Convertible.” Hirschberg and Hirschberg. 113–19. Hirschberg, Stuart and Terry Hirschberg, eds. Discovering the Many Worlds of Literature. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. 112 & 628. Print. “The Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project.” Psychological Trauma for American Indians Who Served in Vietnam. Department of Veterans Affairs. 31 Jan. 2007. Web. 30 Jan. 2011. O’Brien, Tim. “If I Die in a Combat Zone.” Hirschberg and Hirschberg. 628–32. “Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’ Turns 20.” Art Beat. PBS NewsHour. 28 Apr. 2010. Web. 30 Jan. 2011.
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