Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

Blessings to all of our soldiers, all those who have fought, and all the families who have supported them. Memorial Day, of course, is a day to remember all service men and women who have died for our country.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. While not necessarily a "Memorial Day" novel, it is about soldiers at war.

The Things They Carried

They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul.

"They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice.... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to."

I first read The Things They Carried in high school. It's one of those books that leaves a mark that lasts forever. I fell in love with it for so many reasons. It was unequivocally honest and beautifully written that I would read and re-read sections over and over again. The novel creates a snapshot not just of men or war or men at war but of our social cues, of the human spirit, of our vulnerabilities, fears, and the way war washes away any trace of naivete.

I think, perhaps, what struck me most about this novel when I first pulled back it's pages was the idea of knowing a person based on their things. After all, what we collect, what we choose to surround ourselves with is very telling about who we are, what we like, what we dream of. For these men, however, what they carry must be sufficient enough in the practicalities of war and significant enough to add bulk to their pack. With so few things to bring on a journey, what personal items would I take? Would they feel burdensome as I quite literally carry them on my back or would they offer relief, reprieve from the everyday world of war? These are the questions I ask myself each time I read this book.

And it's not just one soldier's story that we hear but many. O'Brien paints the picture of them so beautifully and convincingly that it's impossible to put down. Take this lead paragraph for example. It's a wonderful exercise in writing to see just how much we've learned about this person, how we feel for them in just a few sentences, and how there are so many pieces that make up a life:

First lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.

What's your favorite war-time novel and why?

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