If easy reading is damned hard writing, Tim O’Brien twists this adage to make “The Things They Carried” appear to be easy writing that is hard to read.
Readers gathered in four locations across the Kansas City metro area to discuss this year’s National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection.
All of greater Kansas City’s libraries collaborated on the Big Read KC to present O’Brien’s seminal work of fiction about the Vietnam War. O’Brien plays a pivotal role in the recent PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The book was chosen as a companion to the show.
Marnie Hammer of Kansas City summed up what many readers said over the course of four discussions. “In one respect, this book is an easy read, and then in so many others, it’s difficult,” she said. “The language is so spare and precise. O’Brien uses the exact word he means to use, and the emotional impact is powerful.”
While readers struggled with the intensity of the book, none felt the work was sensationalized or overpopulated.
Tom Brown of Kansas City, Kan., said, “O’Brien portrays enough violence to make you feel you’re in the war fields with the soldiers.” Jay Sparks of Kansas City, Kan., agreed: “It sounds horrible and graphic and gory, but it’s never gratuitous.”
The short, intense chapters helped readers dip in and out of the book, but it wasn’t easy. Phyllis Elliott of Lone Jack remarked, “One unrelenting voice would have been too much to bear. By using vignettes, O’Brien breaks the war down to give us a wider swath of what’s happening without the emotional intensity of just one person’s point of view.”
Although “The Things They Carried” is classified as a novel, readers debated this issue. Several thought it was a memoir and pointed to one story in particular as an illustration. “On the Rainy River” is the tale of young Tim’s decision not to flee to Canada to avoid the draft.
John Flaherty of Kansas City said, “I identified with ‘On the Rainy River.’ I understood Tim being torn by what to do and his struggle to do the moral thing. I really understood what he meant by saying he thought he made the wrong choice. The truth is in what you feel is the experience.”
But readers also debated the veracity of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” the story of a young woman’s slow indoctrination into the Vietnam War experience of a foot soldier.
Kathie Cook of Overland Park said, “It just seems impossible. How could that really happen? A soldier sending for his girlfriend to visit!” Brown agreed, “I just can’t imagine that it was possible for a 17-year-old girl to travel overseas like that. It must be more of a metaphor or symbol for something.”
Flaherty wasn’t convinced this couldn’t happen and walked readers through a believable scenario for a co-ed to travel to Vietnam to visit her Army boyfriend. Hammer pointed out, “It was much easier to travel then. Far fewer restrictions.”
Readers were eager to discuss Mary Anne’s transformation from ingénue to jungle prowler with Special Forces soldiers. “It happened step by step,” Flaherty said. “Mary Anne wanted to learn about the Vietnamese culture and what the boys were going through. She was bright and curious. Something finally just clicked with her, and she developed an addiction to the adrenaline high. Same as the soldiers.”
Hammer noted, “Listen to the way she talks about the intensity of this life when she mentions the next breath could be your last. This is reality for her.”
Sparks mused, “Mary Anne could be considered the ideal woman in the eyes of the soldiers. She truly understands what they are going through since she goes through it, too.”
Flaherty called “Sweetheart” a “universal story. It’s just more shocking since it happened to a woman. Mary Anne came of age in Vietnam. She knew she wouldn’t have had much of a life once she got home.” Flaherty added with a chuckle, “I kind of thought of her as Wonder Woman.”
Naphtali Faris of Kansas City felt otherwise about Mary Anne’s experiences. “We know something bad must have happened to Mary Anne to push her to this extreme. This story is ambiguous. We don’t get this girl’s ending. We don’t revisit her the way we revisit other characters. She got lost and the jungle absorbed her. This is a raw story.”
Readers did appreciate how O’Brien used the theme of stories and storytelling in his collection of short stories to help understand what it was like for a young, scared soldier in the Vietnam War.
Sam Zeff of Overland Park offered concluding thoughts. “The thing about the book is that even if you didn’t care a whit about Vietnam, the stories stay with you. They’re about how you relate to your colleagues. How you treat them. How you tolerate them. Were you good enough to them? These are the people who pop into your life when you need them. You don’t know how they got there, but we all have them.”
Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library's Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look in FYI on Oct. 21 for the introduction to the next selection, “Wolf Season” by Helen Benedict.
The Big Read
Events continue throughout October in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read. Go to bigreadkc.org for information about the events and the 2017 selection, “The Things They Carried.”