COLUMN: Celebrate Day Two of Forbidden Book Week with “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
This is the second column in a weeklong series celebrating Forbidden Book Week, which celebrates the freedom to read. Each column will review a different frequently contested book.
“The Things They Wore” by Tim O’Brien
Tim O’Brien lists over 50 items soldiers carried during the Vietnam War in his 1990 novel. Each one is important, but one stays in my head long after I close the book every time I do. the bed. They carried gravity, he writes in this first chapter.
In “The Things They Carried”, O’Brien tells a partially fictional story of his time as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division in Vietnam.
His prose is honest, even in the parts of the novel that parallel the truth. Recalling Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway in their writings on war, his style of sentence is journalistic, following a simple structure. He romanticizes the subject no more than the language, writing about war truthfully without disguising the realities of conflict in flowery prose.
O’Brien analyzes the idea of courage more precisely than any author I have ever read. He questions the relationship between bravery, morality, and intention in a chapter that begins, “It’s a story I’ve never told before. Not to just anyone.
The chapter included near the beginning of “The Things They Carried” is a confession of a boy enlisted in a war that he, in his own words, hated. He recounts the “moral fracture” he experienced during the summer he was enlisted, torn between fear of war and fear of running to Canada to avoid it.
He went north for six days, met a man named Elroy and then returned home to go to Vietnam. The last lines of the chapter echo in my head like I’m more of O’Brien, 21, struggling.
“I survived, but it’s not a happy ending,” he writes. “I was a coward. I went to war.
Each paragraph in the book has a similar impact, making readers feel the words in their guts.
No.34 on the American Library Association’s 2010-2019 list of the 100 Most Banned and Contested Books, O’Brien’s work doesn’t always appeal to fans for its blunt descriptions. Banned for its violent and raw content, it remains one of the most thought-provoking novels on my shelf.
O’Brien predicts his writing strategy with a suggestion from character Mitchell Sanders, a radio operator in the novel, who says, “Get out of your way and let (the story) tell.” O’Brien lines up accordingly.
He doesn’t dilute his story with commentary, and in some chapters he doesn’t even bother to stumble upon the punctuation marks in the quotation marks, instead omitting them altogether in an effort to get right to the point.
Cathartic and at times brutal, O’Brien’s writing embodies his subject.
Soldiers in its history carry pocket knives, cigarettes, water cans, rations, steel helmets, photographs, fatigues, bandages and more. But according to O’Brien, they were carrying more than that. They carried gravity.