Friday, July 8, 2011

On the Rainy River

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On the Rainy River is just one chapter out of an entire novel by Tim O’Brien, yet we learn so much from it that it’s almost as if we don’t need the other 4 pages to get to know the man we meet the very first sentence.

What we learn from Tim O’Brien in just this one short chapter is of the life of one man. Living during the time of the Vietnam War, he is one of many men of his time being drafted. He is also one of the many men that truly believes that war is wrong and does nothing but destruct. When we first meet him, he is telling us his story; a story of shame, embarrassment, and eventually, pride.

When Tim O’Brien begins this chapter,his main character is looking back; reflecting on his experience. He tells us right off that his story is not one that he takes pride in. He tells us that he is even embarrassed to be sharing it with us. We know that specifically from his words, (pg. )

“Even now, I’ll admit, the story makes me squirm. For more than

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twenty years I’ve had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to

push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the

facts down on paper, I’m hoping to relieve at least some of the

pressure on my dreams.”

We know all this from his remarks, but what is he not telling us straight up? What does this tale really mean? And most importantly, what is it really about?

Lets consider it in a literal way; the simplest, but not fullest, way to interpret literature. What we know from this authors words is that this man, his main character, after being drafted into the war, or at least discovering his prospects of being drafted, is trying to escape something. The literal thing he’s escaping, what he claims to be escaping? The drafting into the war. He packs his bags, and drives. Where he’s going, he’s not sure. What he’ll do when he gets there; well, he’s not too sure of that either. All he knows is that he refuses to participate in an event that kills more people than there’s room for on a commemorative wall. He knows that war hurts, war tears apart, war breaks things that are not fixable. Families. Lives. He will do anything to avoid being a part of it.

So he gets in his truck and he drives. It is hinted somewhere that his real intention is to drive to Canada, where he would be free of the draft. Amidst lonely highways and frostbitten landscape, he discovers a little old shack with a little old man, a man that just may save his life.

That’s the literal way of looking at it. But what if we were to search for the deeper meaning, what Dante calls the anagogic way of looking at it? What if we were to question what it is he’s really running from, who or what he’s really escaping? What if we were to ask ourselves, what did this man find in that run-down shack with the Elroy Berdahl, the man who seemed to read minds, that would forever alter his life and make his story so powerful?

I don’t think Tim O’Brien just wanted us to assume that this man was only escaping the war. I believe that what he wanted us to realize is that what seems to be isn’t always what is. Maybe this man really did set out to escape the tragedies of war. But I don’t think that that was all he was trying to escape. I think he was trying to escape himself. It’s hard to know exactly the reason; whether it be insecurities, instability, or just plain boredom with his life, I think its pretty clear; though he doesn’t come right out and say it, that he wants, even more than to dodge the bullet that is the Vietnam War, he wants to start over with his life. Some argue that he wasn’t escaping, because if he was, what about all those years, all those opportunities he had to get out when he didn’t? Why didn’t he pack up and leave much sooner? But I don’t think that we can say he wasn’t escaping solely on the basis of the fact that he didn’t pack up and leave sooner. I think that his whole life was gaining him the courage to finally get his life together and change it.

In the end of the chapter, the main character, the man who fought so hard for his causes, goes to war. He surrenders. Pg. 61

“The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar

names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie,

and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home

again. I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a

coward. I went to war.”

So what, if in the end, he was back where he started, was the intent, the point, of this chapter? Why did Tim O’ Brien bring this story to us if all he was proving was broken courage and fear?

I think Tim O’ Brien was trying to show us that whats right is not always what wins, and that no matter how hard we try, it doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. We live in a world that firmly believes in standing up for what you believe in, yet we keep the possibility of failure in the darkness. We don’t deal with the, “what ifs”, just with our hopes of success. What shatters those hopes, we don’t talk about, but choose to clear our throats and sit in silence instead.

Tim O’ Brien had a mission when he wrote this book. He had a mission to change our thoughts, show that heroes can exist through failure, and bring light to the hard realities that are our lives.

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