Colliding with lives: how a 'peace' novel about war touches so many
Tim O’Brien's speech to the community at Dickinson State University on Wednesday was less of a speech and more of a collection of stories.
“I don’t do this for a living, and it’s a little terrifying to be doing something so opposite to what I ordinarily do — sitting alone in a room," "The Things They Carried" author told the crowd. "I am, though, a believer in stories. What I thought I’d do tonight is not give you a lecture and talk to you in abstractions, but instead try to tell you a few stories in the hope that my underlying messages will come through the story, as it always happens with stories.”
As he stood behind the podium, he told the community that he agreed to participate in the NEA Big Read because he felt it was his responsibility to say things he wouldn't have said as a younger man, things people might not want to hear.
One of the things he said was a story of an intense firefight in which none of the combatants died.
"As we all made our way down the rice paddy afterward, I looked down, and there lay a dead little girl, 7 years old (or) 8; you couldn't tell," he said. "She was too dead to tell; half her face was gone. The other half of her face, one of her eyes was hanging out . . . She was the only casualty in this firefight . . . As I looked at her, you can imagine what was going through my head, 'Did a bullet from my weapon do that to that little girl?' You can't help but think that."
He looked at his friend and said, 'Well, the world must be a better place, right?'"
"That's what wars are for, right? Making the world a better place?" he said. " ... It sure as hell didn't feel like a better place. It felt like a worse place, and I felt like a participant in making it a worse place."
O'Brien considers himself a "peace" writer rather than a "war" writer in that one of his goals is to dispel the idea that war is glorious.
"The common tuba playing Fourth of July, Veteran's Day rhetoric for combat veterans doesn't ring true for those who have been in it and done it," he told the audience.
"The Things They Carried" and its message have touched the lives of many of its readers. Another story he told the audience was about a letter he received from an elementary school teacher in Minnesota in which she told him a story about why she never wanted to go to the dinner table as a child.
"Her father would sit at the table, staring at the plate, his eyes not moving, not looking at anybody at that table," O'Brien said. "She said his face would slowly go red and that the cords in his neck would start to stiffen up, and that he’d mutter to himself."
As a kid, it frightened her.
Her narrative jumped to when she found a cigar box in the basement of her home.
"(She) opened it up, and in the box were relics of her dad’s history," O'Brien said. "There was an old … photograph, badly faded by age, of her father in a uniform — as it turned out, in Vietnam. There was a dented cartridge casing. There were some medals in this box that he won in Vietnam … Looking at them in combination, she knew that her dad had been in a war," O'Brien said.
She asked her father about it, but he didn't respond. She continued writing to O'Brien about the tension between her parents, about the time that her mother told her she never loved her father.
“Her mother said, ‘I married him out of pity. We had a few dates in college.’ He’d gone off to the war, and he came home this silent, embittered, angry, sad, sorrowful man who sat silently at that dinner table night after night. Then her mother said, ‘How can you love somebody who won’t talk to you, who won’t say a word to you, about this huge portion of his life?’”
In high school, she was assigned "The Things They Carried" for her AP English class. She left it lying on the table at home, where her father picked it up. He read a few pages little by little, and night by night, he began talking to his family about his experiences in Vietnam, about the things he carried.
“She said, ‘This conversation that began with that book lying on a coffee table is still going on. It’s not over. She also said, 'My mom and dad were not perfect. Things are not great, but they’re still together, and I don’t think they would have been if that book had not been lying on a coffee table that day,'” O'Brien said.
Voice cracking, O'Brien said that she wrote the letter to thank him.
"I didn’t intend to help that family. I didn’t know the family. How could I intend to help them?" he said. "My point in telling the story to my children, and now to you, is that now and then … a book does things the author does not intend. It collides with a mother who lost her son in Vietnam, or it collides with a 16 year-old boy who never met his father, who died in Vietnam. He’d been conceived just before the father went. Just three nights ago, I was in LA, and a woman come up to me who had never known her father. He died in Vietnam, and that book collided with her life. She thought she’d learned something about what he’d gone through."
Audience members found his storytelling presentation entertaining, powerful and unexpected.
Substitute teacher Bette Madler said she read "The Things They Carried" with her book group.
"It’s a book that totally gripped me because my first husband was a Vietnam War vet," she said. "I lost him at a very early age as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange and Agent White. I wanted to have this (book) autographed so that I could pass it along to my son, who is a member of the National Guard. To me, it was a very powerful book, as was his talk."