During the pandemic, I’ve compiled a list of the “The Most Important Novels in My Life,” then started re-reading to see if they maintained their esteem over time.
Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” made my list for its haunting narrative of the author’s Vietnam experience and its structure as a series of connected stories. The piece I remember the most, and still cuts me every time I read it, is On the Rainy River.
O’Brien receives his draft notice and faces the “moral emergency” of his young life: report to the army to fight a war he was against or escape to Canada? He couldn’t make up his mind. He writes: “I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile.”
The process by which he decides is wrenching and riveting—and shows us there are seldom easy answers to impossible dilemmas.
The nineteen-year-old O’Brien leaves his family and drives north through Minnesota. At a loss for what to do, he spends six days near the Canadian border with the proprietor of a fishing camp. He believes the brave thing is to go to Canada—it’s right across the river. He will stand for his principles. He will summon the courage to leave his life behind.
But he did not want people to think badly of him, as a coward, as a hater of his country—and shame and embarrassment led him to turn around, go back home, and become a soldier in a war he didn’t believe in.
I think about my own moments of indecision and ambivalence when confronted with a moral emergency. What is the courageous course of action? What is the right thing to do? It’s terrible not to know.
O’Brien’s writing reminds me that we all face the impossible. That alone is a balm. That alone helps me live with uncertainty and the consequences of my decisions.