Belinda Huang ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried could be rightly called a war book, the story of a young man trying to fight a war he doesn’t understand, even once he has returned home. But the truth is, it is more than a war book; it is about the burdens we carry as part of being alive.
Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990, twenty years after O’Brien returned from Vietnam, this Pulitzer Prize finalist shows readers that in war, there are no winners and there is no truth: there are just the stories we tell afterwards. Instead of glorifying the war experience, this novel allows people who have never been near combat to understand the way the war changes people, conflating truth and fiction seamlessly to show that the facts of a story don’t matter as much as what the story is trying to say or what it wants the reader to feel.
The characters in the book, whether brothers-in-arms or family at home, are portrayed with delicate humanity, even while they fight and scream and cry. It is the relationships between father and daughter, soldier and enemy, and comrades and friends, that makes the book relatable, despite the fact that it might not be easy for readers who haven’t had similar experiences to comprehend the subject matter.
One of the strongest aspects of O’Brien’s writing is dark and sometimes graphic description, which is one of the reasons The Things They Carried is placed on Banned Books lists across the country. However, it is those same elements that allow the reader to fully experience O’Brien’s story. Instead of using flashy language and sweeping prose, O’Brien opts for simplicity, letting the images of war–a field of excrement, a dying soldier’s wounds–speak both for themselves and for the veterans who can’t find the words to explain their own experiences.
For its literary and emotional value, O’Brien’s book is often taught in high school English classes, reaching an audience beyond people who have been directly impacted by war. For young people reading it today, The Things They Carried is also a book about surviving and persisting in the face of adversity, whether it be a broken home or a bad childhood. It is the kind of transformative text that makes readers out of disillusioned young people and helps veterans better share their trauma through sharing literature.
In 2010, O’Brien went on NPR to talk about the book and its legacy just twenty years after its publication, saying that his story was intended “to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person…experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.” The huge commercial and literary success of his book proves just how well he has accomplished his goal, as has the fact that people have tried to ban it for being realistic about the horrors of war.
Critics have called The Things They Carry the best book about Vietnam, and even the best book about war in general. Whether or not that’s measurable or true, there is no denying the effect the book has on young people and veterans alike, even as the shadow of the Vietnam War lengthens and fades. With this book, it’s a burden we can share.