Before picking up this book in early July, I had read only one, short war story. So this was a new experience for me. And it’s hard to find words to describe the impact of this collection of stories, which the publisher has called “loosely autobiographical.” They are inspired by the award-winning author’s experiences in the Vietnam War. They are the sort of true story that you feel in your gut, the kind that opens your eyes. They go beyond “seeing is believing,” because what Tim says he sees–or what his characters see–cannot always be believed. But somehow, through his writing, Tim still makes it known, which is even stronger truth. In the chapter titled “Good Form,” he explains his storytelling approach in The Things They Carried.

“But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief. . . .

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.”

The Vietnam War was over before I was born. I had one uncle who had fought in Vietnam. Although I can’t remember ever being told this, I knew that he was scarred by that war. He claimed that he’d been a P.O.W. and had been tortured in a Viet Cong prison camp; the VA denied this. Certain family members, I knew, weren’t sure what to believe about his stories. I confess that I never really thought about it much. But now I’m thinking about it, about how my uncle’s happening-truth and his story-truth were not so far apart; how it probably didn’t matter so much which was which; how his family needn’t have struggled so much to untangle the this from the that. O’Brien’s stories, in making things present for him, also make them present for all of us.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Mariner Books, 2009. (First published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1990.)

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