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(Book Review) The Things They Carried

We have reached the point in the pandemic where we are combing through our shelves for books we have never gotten around to reading, because this seems like a perfect time to cut down the backlog.  First up, we have Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a stunning collection of fictional short stories about the author's time in combat during the Vietnam War.  Originally published in 1990, the book is a gripping look at both war and the human condition, as well as being a masterclass in storytelling.

Taken literally, "the things they carried" include items like pictures of girlfriends, weapons, and Bibles.  On a more philosophical level, the soldiers spend their time facing deeper struggles like shouldering the burden of the daily grind, fighting to maintain a sense of reality in a world of insanity, and avoiding a constant fear of embarrassing themselves and their families.  O'Brien weaves aspects of his own experiences into these stories, but the dividing line between fiction and nonfiction is quickly blurred.  That's a key part of the journey of this book.  As O'Brien eloquently argues at one point, a story doesn't have to be literally factual to be real.

To be clear - we have no personal military experience.  That said, every chapter of The Things They Carried feels authentic.  The reader is placed in the wartime environment, amidst the heat and the rain and the shit fields (fields which come into play at one point.)  You sympathize with all of the characters as they try to keep their wits and humanity in a surreal situation where the threat of death constantly hangs over them.  There is a mix of humor, horror, tragedy, and resiliency in the often-mundane.  The utter randomness of some of the deaths is striking, and the struggles some face after the war are heartbreaking.  We don't know the exact ratio of real-life instances to figments of O'Brien's imagination, but he clearly knows of what he speaks, and he tells the tale beautifully. 

Whether you are interested in learning more about the Vietnam War, or you want to experience a master class in emotional storytelling, The Things They Carried is an essential read.  The redemptive power of the imagination shines brightly here.  Highly recommended.



The Things They Carried CoverAn epic journey in storytelling.  (pic via


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