Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (4/5). Not exactly PTSD.

9 Sep

This is a book that I feel like I’ve read, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t at the same time. I had deja vu during parts of it, and during others I was captivated and turning the pages as fast as I could. Maybe I read sections of it in high school, or maybe I’m crazy. Probably the later.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

When there’s only so much you can carry, the things you carry mean a lot. Amidst the mortars and rain gear, there are pictures of loved ones and slingshots and Bibles. But there are other things they carry that don’t fit in a bag; memories, scars, the image of a man killed, or the story of what happened to someone. These are all the things they carried. Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories shows all of these and more in the life of a Vietnam soldier.

I liked how O’Brien structured this book. It wasn’t sequential and for the longest time, Tim didn’t include himself in the story. It’s not exactly his story, but the story of the men he knew. He wasn’t in some of them because he wasn’t present for them. I liked that he included himself more at the end as a way of connecting and explaining the story without too much ‘telling.’ It’s really beautifully crafted.

I’m assuming the characters are based on real people, but they’re based on O’Brien’s memory of the people, and I’m not sure how reliable that is. Some of them seemed down to Earth (as much as could be expected) but some of them were such tall tales it was hard to even consider. I believed in Rat Kiley, but not in Mary Anne Bell. But as I consider it, maybe that’s the point.

Kiowa was my favorite character because he was so diverse and real. Being O’Brien’s closest friend, I think his portrayal is based on more memories than the others and O’Brien was able to capture him well on paper. I liked that he identified so strongly as both a Baptist and a Native American and that those things shaped him so much as a person. He let it guide him and it made him a great friend and a soldier I’d want to have at my side in Vietnam.

I’ve never been a soldier and I don’t see myself becoming one in the future, so I couldn’t relate to the characters on that level. However, O’Brien writes his characters so well that I can relate to them on a more humanitarian level. I can feel their pain and loss and understand why they would do the things they did. I could see myself in their shoes and understanding them as men.

My favorite story was “Speaking of Courage,” where Norman Bowker is driving around and around the lake where he grew up and now lives with his parents. I thought it was very telling of the way I imagine a lot of veterans feel. He was home and happy to be there, but disconnected from the life those around him were living. He knew them, but hadn’t been around for things that happened to them and missed major events and still thought about how life was before the war. When he tried to talk to people about it, they didn’t understand. I thought O’Brien wrote this in a way that made it possible for civilians to understand what life is like through military eyes.

My least favorite story was “The Ghost Soldiers,” when O’Brien plays a prank on the new medic, Jorgenson. It was the first time I didn’t see the soldiers as a group that was ‘in it together.’ In the other stories, they had shared experiences, even if they were tragedies victories. But in this story, the group splintered. I know that at the end, O’Brien and Jorgenson reconciled, but the duration of the story stuck out to me.

Writer’s Takeaway: O’Brien was able to blend the line between fact and fiction with his story. A couple of the stories were second-hand accounts of stories that seem too ‘out there’ to be real but the teller portrays them as real. And no matter the truth, they’re good war stories. O’Brien challenges us to determine if that’s what really matters after all. Are we after the 100% God’s honest truth, or do we just want a good story?

I really enjoyed the story and structure of this book. It moved fast enough to keep me interested but slow enough to keep my attention. Four out of five stars.

This book fulfills 1950-1969 for When Are You Reading? Challenge and Foreign Country: Vietnam for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien | the Book of Pain
Review: Tim O’Brien’s Novel The Things They Carried, Read by Brian Cranston | Biblioklept


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