Sunday, March 18, 2018

On the Rainy River by Tim O'Brien Review

On the Rainy River by Tim O'Brien is a short story from the book The Things They Carried published in 1990. The main subject is American society’s attitude toward the Vietnam War.

The narrator tells a story from the perspective of a 21-year-old young man whose name is also Tim O'Brien. It must be a real story about life experiences which the author had.

Young Tim O'Brien got drafted into the military, which means he had to fight in the Vietnam war, a war he hated. He couldn't believe that it happened to him. Here is a description of his thoughts:

"I remember opening up the letter, scanning the first few lines, feeling the blood go thick behind my eyes. I remember a sound in my head. It wasn't thinking, it was just a silent howl. A million things all at once—I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn't happen. I was above it. ... A mistake, maybe—a foul-up in the paperwork."

The father asked Tim what his plans were. He answered “Nothing. Wait.” The small town where Tim lived was near the Canadian border, and he was plagued with tempting thoughts to escape the draft. The thoughts were abstract and vague in the beginning. But they appeared in his mind again and again.

"I could see particular shapes and images, the sorry details of my own future— a hotel room in Winnipeg, a battered old suitcase, my father's eyes as I tried to explain myself over the telephone. I could almost hear his voice, and my mother's. Run, I'd think. Then I'd think, Impossible. Then a second later I'd think, Run."

That was a moral dilemma. Tim feared the war, but he also feared exile. He feared to lose the respect of his parents. The people in his hometown were conservative. Tim imagined how his neighbors would sit in the cafe talking about "the young O'Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada."

Being in a state of despair, Tim would drive for hours in his father's car without any destination in mind. In one morning he "began looking for a place to lie low for a day or two." He randomly found an old fishing resort on "the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, and which for me separated one life from another."

Tim arrived at the fishing resort. It was a turning point of the story. He wrote, that "The man who opened the door that day is the hero of my life. How do I say this without sounding sappy? Blurt it out—the man saved me." He was eighty-one years old, Elroy Berdahl.

If we followed the plot we would see little actions. The next six days Tim and Elroy spent fishing at a resort, hiking into the woods. The tourist season ended, the place was empty. The old man "never asked the obvious questions: Why was I there? Why alone? Why so preoccupied? If Elroy was curious about any of this, he was careful never to put it into words."

It was obvious that the old man knew about the harsh choice which young men faced receiving the draft. Escaping to Canada was one of the possible options for conscripts who didn't want to go to the War.

There are two episodes which exposed the attitude of the old Elroy to his guest.

The first occurred when Tim paid for staying in the resort, Elroy in contrary to the usual price suggested to take into account Tim's work in the fishing resort (Tim helped Elroy in the same little chores to "get the place ready for winter, sweeping down the cabins and hauling in the boats"). Elroy offered a higher wage than Tim's obligations. As a result, Elroy returned the money back adding some money over. Tim refused to take the money. Elroy was persistent: “Pick it up. Get yourself a haircut.” The money lay on the table for the rest of the evening. It was still there when I went back to my cabin. In the morning though, I found an envelope tacked to my door. Inside were the four fifties and a two-word note that said EMERGENCY FUND. The man knew."

The second episode occurred when the old man took Tim out for fishing on the Rainy River. Elroy turned the boat straight north. The feeling of being in Canadian waters was described by the author as an existence of a parallel reality where there was no war, where everything was different.

Why did they come here? - Tim thought. "I think he meant to bring me up against the realities, to guide me across the river and to take me to the edge and to stand a kind of vigil as I chose a life for myself ... And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy. Silly and hopeless. It was no longer a possibility. Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life."

When we stand in front of our biggest choices, thoughts, feelings, predictions may line up and become tangible. This is what Tim was thinking:

"I saw faces from my distant past and distant future. My wife was there. My unborn daughter waved at me, and my two sons hopped up and down, and a drill sergeant named Blyton sneered and shot up a finger and shook his head. ... There was a slim young man I would one day kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My Khe."

Eventually, Tim left the resort, he followed his fate. This is the last line of the story: "I was a coward. I went to the war."

It is important to understand the significance of events described in the story for one particular person. The old man was the only one who provided Tim with the choice. Tim felt a terrible pressure from his parents, relatives, acquaintances. Elroy remained neutral, and moreover, he sympathized with Tim's troubles.

The dilemma described in the story reminds the famous monologue of Prince Hamlet:

"To be, or not to be, that is the question:
... to take arms against a sea of troubles

Here is a link to the text of the story:
It is an audio-record on Youtube:

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