In the Lake of the Woods ~ by Tim O’Brien

I guess I should have known better – maybe not.   I really enjoyed The Things They Carried back about 5 years ago,  but never really wanted to try another one by O’Brien.  I tend to be  allergic to war books (and romance) although once in awhile there will be one which appeals.   (Reading groups stretch my horizons.)

*An aside –  I was deeply involved in the protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s and   couldn’t read anything about the Vietnam War for decades.*

That was the case with The Things They Carried because it really was  a different kind of book but I read it for a group and got through it.   So I thought maybe In the Lake of the Woods would be okay –  besides,  it’s supposedly a mystery – right?  Also I very much appreciated Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes  (recommended by a friend)  and Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald (1972) read for a group in about 2008?   The war in Vietnam shows up as backstory in a lot of books as somebody’s memory or something.

The Sympathizer (read last year) and The Refugees  (read last month!) are brilliant and the author, Viet Thanh Nguygen has written another book –Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War  nonfiction – which I’ve not got to.   But unless they are really,  really well done –  war books –  especially those about Vietnam, no thanks.

In the Lake of the Woods
by Tim O’Brien / 1994 
read by L. J. Lanser  8h 50m
rating –  6  / fiction 

Also,  and unfortunately in this case,  I knew the ending before first reading and that really did spoil the main thread – the missing woman –  for me for awhile,  so I’ll not get into that here.   I think it spoiled part of the story for me,  but NOT the whole thing.   I frequently reread books completely knowing the ending – delicious!   So I kept going.  But the result this time was that the protagonist’s  war memories (and of Mi Lai for heaven’s sake) and a semi-known ending made the book either yukkie or boring for much of the reading.    But not entirely.  The philosophical ending is trite.  Still,   I did give the book a 6 which is actually leaning toward “like.”

On the credit side,   what kept me reading is that the book is really quite literary in its own way.   There are lots of sited sources for quotes,  both real and fictitious; it has an interesting structure and uses letters and courtroom type forms of narrative.   The war bit was still irritating, uncomfortable –  I googled some to remember because a part of me is still curious – but I get tired of it (overloaded?) pretty quickly.

The plot –   John Wade has recently lost a primary election in the state of Minnesota and he and his wife Kathy have rented a cottage on the Lake of the Woods in the northernmost part of the state.   He lost badly because of some information about him which the media picked up on.  The information was related to his secret war record – the Vietnam war.  It seems he was involved in Mi Lai.

He and his wife Kathy have been having problems for a long time and now they’ve got more serious.  Kathy is torn between staying with John and leaving him.  John is unable to control the violence,  the budding alcoholism and the spells of PTSD.  He says he loves her dearly but he’s more possessive than loving.   One night she apparently takes the boat and disappears into the waters.  (And that’s as far as I’ll go.)

The police procedural is excellent and the characters are very well drawn.  The themes revolve around denial, truth,  love,  responsibility and  time,   But the war parts …  I guess I believe it’s valuable to remember and honor that war – it is a part of our history. I try to do it without falling into knee-jerk cliches,  trying to understand the various aspects,  the “sides.”   To have compassion for all.