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The Things They Carried
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Things They Carried is a gut-wrenching combination of novel, story collection, and memoir partly based on the real experiences of acclaimed author and war veteran Tim O'Brien during the Vietnam War. Focusing on the physical horror and emotional destructiveness of warfare, the book grapples with heavy questions about mortality, trauma, honor, cowardice, and the loss of humanity in desperate situations. There are gruesome depictions of firefights, mortar sieges, unexpected explosions, and general death and destruction, including descriptions of disfigured corpses and details of the visceral feelings associated with killing and dying. One chapter tells the story of a man the storyteller killed with a hand grenade and the bloody aftermath. Lots of swearing (including "bitch," "motherf--ker," and "c--ksucker") and racial slurs ("gook," "redskin"). Considered a classic of literature about the Vietnam War and a meditation on war itself, The Things They Carried was written for adults, but many teens read it.
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What's the story?
THE THINGS THEY CARRIED follows an infantry unit wandering through the jungles of Vietnam in the late 1960s at the height of the American intervention. The semi-autobiographical, nonlinear storytelling of award-winning author Tim O'Brien darts from anecdote to anecdote, leading readers through misty riverbanks along the Song Tra Bong, to napalm-charred villages, to fields of manure and piles of corpses, exposing the grim and graphic realities of war. Tracing the emotional lives of several soldiers in his unit, O'Brien draws parallels between the memories and objects the men bring with them to the war, and what they wind up bringing back with them when they leave, if they're so lucky to return in one piece. In searching for meaning and understanding through recollection and retelling, O'Brien concludes, "In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen."
Is it any good?
Profound, heartbreaking, thought-provoking war literature at its finest, this novel isn't content to simply explore the emotional lives of soldiers. Instead, The Things We Carried begs the reader to question the very nature of life, death, and survival. Not only does the book engage with the invisible scars of battle and the PTSD that results from combat, but it also alludes to the destructive psychology of nationalism and imperialism and the folly of concepts such as valor, honor, and truth. In a passage early on, the narrator declares, "In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true."
The writing is blunt but vivid, deep but relatable, concise but somehow expansive. O'Brien's writings (including the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone and the novel Going After Cacciato) are considered essential to the Vietnam War canon for a reason. And The Things They Carried is a perfect example of how literature can add to our understanding of history when it engages authentically with the people who lived through the events being discussed.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the concept of story-truth vs. truth-truth in The Things They Carried. Why are embellishments sometimes important to telling a story more fully? What did you learn about the Vietnam War that you didn't know before?
What do you think of the level of violence and swearing in The Things They Carried? Does it seem key to creating a realistic portrayal of war?
How can studying the accounts of real soldiers inform our opinions about the human cost of war? How did the experiences of soldiers in Vietnam and their subsequent portrayal in entertainment and the media shape public perceptions of that war and the military in general?
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