“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”

things they carriedBooks on Tap read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien at Champion Brewery on November 7 ahead of Veterans Day. Released in 1990, the interconnected short stories describe the character Tim O’Brien’s year of combat in Vietnam. O’Brien the author blurs fact and fiction, truth and untruth, memory and fact in stories that repeat and build on themselves until the reader feels “what [he] felt. [He]  wants you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

While most of the stories are set in Vietnam and are about O’Brien the character and the men he served with, the one that touched our book club members the most was “On the Rainy River,” in which O’Brien contemplates leaving for Canada after he receives his draft notice.  He works in a lodge near the border with Elroy Berdahl, a quiet, peaceful man who bears witness to O’Brien’s crisis of conscience. Fishing together on the river in sight of Canada, Elroy offers no advice or admonishment, only companionship as O’Brien realizes that despite his objection to the war, he will serve to avoid the shame and embarrassment dodging would bring to his family. This “cowardness” evokes a sense of exile, bringing to mind Odysseus for one book club member. The river in this story and the ones set in Vietnam also link this book to the ancient epics and their journeys. 

We discussed the legacy of the book, now almost 30 years old, about a war that is starting to fall out of living memory. O’Brien the author has a strong sense of duty to get the emotion of the experience right. O’Brien the character says he writes to save his life, that “Stories are for joining the past to the future.” While many veterans did not openly share their experiences, this book gives them the space to acknowledge both what the war was like and the impossibility of conveying that to others. We agreed that this book, which is frequently taught in high schools, will stand the test of time as a piece of art. Other documentary works may give the facts and figures of America’s war in Vietnam, but The Things They Carry will remain the best emotional record. 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

Other works 

Other book mentioned:

Life of Pi

Reporting Vietnam 


 Books on Tap Information:

  • Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris (December 5)
  • No January meeting
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (February 6)
  • Same Page Title TBA (March 5)
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (April 2)
  • There, There by Tommy Orange (May 7)
  • Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)


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