In the Lake of the Woods ~ by Tim O’Brien

I guess I should have known better,  but maybe not.   I really enjoyed O’Brien’s The Things They Carried back about 5 years ago,  but never really wanted to try another one by him.   I tend to be  allergic to war books (and romance),  although once in awhile there will be one which appeals.   (Reading groups stretch my horizons.)

*An aside –  I was deeply involved in the protest movements of the late 1960s and early ’70s and couldn’t read anything about the Vietnam War for decades.  It was just too painful.*

But I actually enjoyed The Things They Carried because it really was  a different kind of book and reading it for a group gave me motivation and I got through it.  I think I may have also read  Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald (1972) for a group in about 2008?    Also I very much appreciated Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes  (recommended by a friend) a couple years ago.


In the Lake of the Woods
by Tim O’Brien / 1994 
read by L. J. Lanser  8h 50m
rating –  6  / fiction 

And I have to mention The Sympathizer (read last year) as well as The Refugees  (read last month!) because they are brilliant and authentic.  The author, Viet Thanh Nguygen has now written another book,  Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,   nonfiction – which I’ve not got to.

Anyway,  as a group choice (again)  I thought maybe In the Lake of the Woods would be okay –  besides,  it’s supposedly a mystery – right?    The war in Vietnam shows up as backstory in a lot of books as somebody’s memory or something.  But unless they are really,  really well done –  war books –  especially those about Vietnam, no thanks.

The second problem with this book was that  I knew the ending before first reading and that really did spoil the main thread for me for awhile,  so I’ll not get into that here.   I think it spoiled the mystery part, but NOT the whole thing.   I frequently reread books completely knowing the ending – delicious!   So I kept going.  But the result of struggling through was,  1. the protagonist’s  war memories (and of Mi Lai for heaven’s sake) and 2, a semi-known ending.  These two made the book either yukkie or boring for much of the reading.    But not entirely.  The philosophical ending is trite.  Still,   I did give the book a 6 which is actually leaning a bit toward “like.”

On the credit side,   what kept me reading is that the book is really quite literary in its own way.   There are lots of sited sources for quotes,  both real and fictitious; it has an interesting structure and uses letters and courtroom type forms of narrative.   The war bit was still irritating, uncomfortable –  I googled some to remember because a part of me is still curious – but I get tired of it (overloaded?) very quickly – too sad we failed to stop it in time to prevent so many atrocities.

The plot –   Vietnam vet John Wade has recently lost a primary election in the state of Minnesota so he and his wife Kathy have rented a cottage on the Lake of the Woods in the northernmost part of the state to unwind.   He lost badly because of some information about his participation in the war which the media picked up on.  The information was related to his secret war record – the Vietnam war.  It seems he was involved in Mi Lai.  It haunts his dreams and ideas – he has PTSD.

He and his wife Kathy have been having problems for a long time and now the problems have got more serious according to some,  but not to others.    Kathy is torn between staying with John and leaving him.  John is unable to control his violence,  the budding alcoholism and the spells of PTSD.  He says he loves Kathy dearly,  but he’s more possessive than loving.   One night she apparently takes the boat and disappears into the waters.  (And that’s as far as I’ll go – this is early on).

The police procedural is excellent and the characters are very well drawn.  The themes revolve around denial, truth,  love,  responsibility and  time,   But the war parts …  I guess I believe it’s valuable to remember and honor that war – it is a part of our history. At this point,  I try to do it without falling into cliches and to understand the various aspects,  the “sides.”   To have compassion for all.

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