O’Brien says he has not told this story to his parents, siblings, or wife. He speaks of living with the shame of the story, whose events occurred during the summer of 1968. On June 17, 1968, a month after he graduates from Macalaster College, Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, and president of the student body, Tim O’Brien receives his draft notice to fight in the Vietnam War. The war seems wrong to him, its causes and effects uncertain. Like most Americans, the young O’Brien doesn’t know what happened to the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, and he can’t discern what type of person Ho Chi Minh, the president of North Vietnam, really is. In college, O’Brien took a stand against the war.
The day the draft notice is delivered, O’Brien thinks that he is too good to fight the war. Although his community pressures him to go, he resists making a decision about whether to go to war or flee. He spends the summer in a meatpacking plant in his hometown of Worthington, Minnesota, removing blood clots from pigs with a water gun. He comes home every night stinking of pig and drives around town aimlessly, paralyzed, wondering how to find a way out of his situation. It seems to him that there is no easy way out. The government won’t allow him to defer in order to go to graduate school; he can’t oppose the war as a matter of general principle because he does agree with war in some circumstances; and he can’t claim ill health as an excuse. He resents his hometown for making him feel compelled to fight a war that it doesn’t even know anything about.
In the middle of the summer, O’Brien begins thinking seriously about fleeing to Canada, eight hours north of Worthington. His conscience and instincts tell him to run. He worries, however, that such an action will lose him the respect of his family and community. He imagines the people he knows gossiping about him in the local café. During his sleepless nights, he struggles with his anger at the lack of perspective on the part of those who influenced him.
One day, O’Brien cracks. Feeling what he describes as a physical rupture in his chest, he leaves work suddenly, drives home, and writes a vague note to his family. He heads north and then west along the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada. The next afternoon, after spending the night behind a closed-down gas station, he pulls into a dilapidated fishing resort, the Tip Top Lodge, and meets the elderly proprietor, Elroy Berdahl. The two spend six days together, eating meals, hiking, and playing Scrabble. Although O’Brien never mentions his reason for going to the Canadian border, he has the sense that Elroy knows, since the quiet old man is sharp and intelligent. One night O’Brien inquires about his bill, and after the two men discuss O’Brien’s work—washing dishes and doing odd jobs—in relation to the cost of the room, Elroy concludes that he owes O’Brien more than a hundred dollars and offers O’Brien two hundred. O’Brien refuses the money, but the next morning he finds four fifty-dollar bills in an envelope tacked to his door. Looking back on this time in his life, O’Brien marvels at his innocence. He invites us to reflect with him, to pretend that we’re watching an old home movie of O’Brien, tan and fit, wearing faded blue jeans and a white polo shirt, sitting on Elroy’s dock, and thinking about writing an apologetic letter to his parents.
On O’Brien’s last full day at the Tip Top Lodge, Elroy takes him fishing on the Rainy River. During the voyage it occurs to O’Brien that they must have stopped in Canadian territory—soon after, Elroy stops the boat. O’Brien stares at the shoreline of Canada, twenty yards ahead of him, and wonders what to do. Elroy pretends not to notice as O’Brien bursts into tears. O’Brien tells himself he will run to Canada, but he silently concludes that he will go to war because he is embarrassed not to. Elroy pulls in his line and turns the boat back toward Minnesota. The next morning, O’Brien washes the breakfast dishes, leaves the two hundred dollars on the kitchen counter, and drives south to his home. He then goes off to war.
“On the Rainy River” is an exploration of the role of shame in war. The story develops the theme of embarrassment as a motivating factor, first introduced by Jimmy Cross in “The Things They Carried” and “Love.” Just as Jimmy Cross feels guilty about Ted Lavender’s death, O’Brien feels guilty about going to Vietnam against his principles. He questions his own motives, and in this story he returns to the genesis of his decision in order to examine with us the specifics of cause and effect.
O’Brien uses the list of physical objects that the members of the Alpha Company carry in Vietnam as a window to the emotional burdens that these soldiers bear. One such burden is the necessity for the young soldiers to confront the tension between fantasy and reality. The realization of this tension disrupts Cross’s stint as the resident dreamer of the Alpha Company. Cross thinks that because he was so obsessed with his fantasy of Martha and the life they might lead after the war, he was negligent. He sees Ted Lavender’s death as the result of his negligence. If “The Things They Carried” is the illustration of the conflict between love and war, then the death of Ted Lavender and the subsequent disillusionment of Lieutenant Cross signify a triumph for war in this conflict.
Cross’s reaction to Ted Lavender’s death shows how the horrors of the war can make men irreparably cynical and gloomy. Before Lavender’s death, the most vivid images Cross carries in his mind are those of Martha. He is obsessed with trivial matters such as whether or not she is a virgin and why she so tantalizingly signs her letters “Love.” But when he decides his thoughts of her have led him astray and that they—and she—caused the distraction and incompetence that led to Lavender’s death, he expresses his anger at her in the only way possible. He burns Martha’s pictures and letters in an attempt to distance himself from the sentimentality he sees as a destructive force during wartime. His conclusion, at the end of this story, that it is better to be loved than to lead, reveals how the experience of Lavender’s death has affected his mentality.
The emotional burdens that the soldiers bear are intensified by their young age and inexperience. Most of the men who fought in Vietnam were in their late teens and early twenties—they were children, students, and boyfriends who had no perspective on how to rationalize killing or come to terms with their friends’ untimely deaths. From the beginning, O’Brien the author uses explicit details to illustrate what the experience was like for the scared men. Among the things the men carry are guilt and cowardice that they are neither able to admit to nor negotiate. Although they are sad for the loss of their friend Lavender, their predominant feeling is of relief, since they are still alive.
O’Brien’s decision to intersperse profound thoughts with mundane events establishes the matter-of-fact tone of the collection. The collection’s narrative alternates between reflections on war and the story of Ted Lavender’s death. By arranging the work this way, O’Brien uses facts to create setting. He explicitly demonstrates his characters’ natures not by describing them but by showing the items they carried with them in such dire circumstances. Rather than explain Kiowa’s heritage in concrete terms, for example, O’Brien simply mentions that Kiowa carries his grandfather’s hatchet and an illustrated New Testament. O’Brien here offers us glimpses of characters whose traits become integral to the ideas that O’Brien explores throughout The Things They Carried.