The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien
Genre: Short Story Collection
Buy Now This book is on reading list for November 2011

Why We Like This Book

Although Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried is ostensibly about the Vietnam War, for this reader it is really a discourse on how narratives shape our past, present, and future.

Through a series of interrelated vignettes about Alpha Company, O’Brien retells and reshapes what they experienced, especially the deaths of his comrades. Seen through the lens of the horrors of war, storytelling becomes an essential coping mechanism for the entire platoon. And for the author, it becomes critical to his sanity after the war ends. The Things They Carried is considered a “ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, and imagination,” and just a handful of writers have offered such insight on the “redemptive power of storytelling.”

In “Notes,” (one of twenty-one chapters in his book) O’Brien examines his own guilt about his fellow soldier Kiowa’s death:

By telling stories, you objective your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless clarify and explain.

Ands, in “Speaking of Courage,” he writes:

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t. Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse.

O’Brien’s book is a must read for Smart Women. It not only reminds us of the psychological, emotional, and physical costs of war but provides one of the best views of why we tell stories in the first place.

Discussion Questions

Is there such a thing as a ‘true story’? How would O’Brien answer this question? Does he provide clues in “How to Tell a True War Story”? What do you make of his statement: “A true war story is never moral.” What does this mean? Is there even such a thing as a true war story? Can a soldier keep
perspective in this stressful environment?

Why does O’Brien open the book with “The Things They Carry” and end with “The Lives of the Dead”? Does this say something about the main themes of the novel?

Do you consider this novel a work of fiction? How is this complicated by the author using his name as one of the characters and the personal nature of the stories?

In what way is war seductive? How does O’Brien approach this subject in the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”?

What does Norman’s circling of the lake tell us about his inner turmoil?

Does O’Brien’s hostility toward Jorgenson surprise you? What do you think it’s really about?

Three stories in succession, “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” and “In the Field,” deal with one event: Kiowa’s death. What is the narrator’s relationship to him and how does he make peace with his death? What hold does Kiowa’s death have on the other platoon members? Why is his death especially significant?

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