The Things They Carried. Tim O’Brien. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. 246 pp
I’m always buying books. Thrift stores, yard sales, estates. At a recent auction, I was excited to find a box holding many titles familiar to me but not yet read. I won the bidding on the box and that evening pulled out the books, touching them, enjoying covers and blurbs, placing them where they belonged on my shelf.
I mis-shelved The Things They Carried. I thought it was non-fiction. It wasn’t until I pulled it down a few weeks later that I realized my mistake.
Fiction it is. But it is fiction intertwined with truth. O’Brien used his own experiences in Vietnam to give validity and depth to the tales told here. This book is an exploration of the platoon soldier’s experience enhanced by the author’s specific and detailed memories. The conversational tone and authentic voice encourages readers to listen and comprehend.
This story follows a path much like concentric circles. Incidents are touched on, and revisited later in the story with much more depth, honesty, and vulnerability. Like an onion, the first chapter is gorgeous and golden. But it is a papery husk covering the crisp layers opening to the sulfur-rich center. With each chapter, story, we are invited deeper and deeper into the trenches, into the war, into the hearts of each man. There we find tender feelings covered by bravado, silence, or ill-humor.
The title story was my favorite. I read it twice before reading the rest of the book. How creative to share characters by detailing what they carried! How compassionate, and yet naïve, of us, the reader, to think we know the kind of man who carries M&Ms or scriptures or love letters!
Included in my copy was a slip of paper with a professor’s name and email. The pages of the book were dog-eared. I do not doubt that this copy was read and discussed as literature in a college somewhere. I am sure it also elicited conversations of human nature, friendship, war, and death, for those that may never have to face a draft.
The book didn’t focus on the enemy or “good versus evil” or even “right or wrong”. Here are the stories of boys who become men - the stories of discovering the truth of what they really carried.