The Truth of Vietnam War in The Red Convertible
‘I don’t want to take psychiatric drugs,’ he [Ron Fleming] says. ‘The vets call them ‘the happy pills.’ I don’t want any of those, because they change you. I don’t want to change.” (April Dembosky, 2017) From his interview with the National Public Radio, Ron Fleming, a Vietnam War veteran describes how his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) leaves him incapable of getting proper health treatment. It is an example of reality soldiers continues to face as they are unable to take care of themselves rooted from the belated acknowledgement of the disorder in the 1970-80s and the lack of resources dedicated to these people. In Louise Erdrich’s short story, The Red Convertible, these struggles are seen through Henry Lamartine after his involvement in the Vietnam War until his suicide. Furthermore, she expands on how it gravely affects his relationships at home especially with his younger brother, Lyman. As such, Erdrich crafted the story with the purpose of highlighting the saddening realities and damages wars and the disorder cause in both the livelihoods of the soldiers and their families. She accomplishes this by her choice of characterization for the brothers to create a relatable story. She also does so by, her choice of flashback and manipulation of tenses address the emotional difficulties and closure the members face respectively. I personally don’t love this piece. It is depressing and it will likely make you relive some sort of sad memory if you are sensitive with the topics of PTSD, depression or suicide. Yet, those are exactly the reasons why I would give this piece to a stranger and let them ponder over it. It is relatable, convincing and realistic because the heartbreaking aspects of the story continue to be relevant in today’s society regardless of the military experience as shown in the story.
The characterizations of Lyman and Henry are simple: they are adventurous and rambunctious and yet have this strong tight-knit brotherhood with each other. With little to no detail on their physical appearance, their relationship becomes a central focus of the story. This itself is noteworthy to the message Erdrich wants to convey as it makes the reader focus on this aspect and not towards the external factors that affect their lives. The family members of returning soldiers are the main caregivers and support that firsthand battle the effects of the disorder once they arrive home. Erdrich expresses this topic when Lyman speaks of the change in Henry’s demeanor: I had been feeling down in the dumps about Henry this time. We had always been together before. Henry and Lyman. But he was such a loner now that I didn’t know how to take it. (189)
The sense of longing and frustration in Lyman’s thoughts sends the message to the readers even the strongest of bonds can be challenged. Avoidance and the unpredictable nature of the disorder are some reasons why many family members struggle to communicate with the soldiers. Many do not know how to properly approach these issues despite their well-intentioned care. This is apparent to Lyman basing on his desperation to have the old Henry back yet not knowing how. Also the simplicity of the passage showcases the main emotions that a family member feels for someone who likely will never be the same person before a war or some traumatic scenario. This imparts a relatable impression to readers, as it is easy to understand and convey in which Erdrich excels in doing so.
One of the story’s unique traits is that it shares qualities from a non-linear story structure such as flashbacks that breaks the ubiquity from the typical linear structuring. This quirk allows the story to be consumed as a recollection of an intimate memory instead. The purpose of flashbacks is often related to a revelation of a truth or epiphany about a character’s circumstance. Erdrich manipulates this technique to highlight the secondary effects of wars towards the loved ones of returning soldiers. Such example is seen as Lyman reminisce about the picture of Henry and himself in front of the red convertible:
I felt good having his picture on the wall, until one night when I was looking at television. I was a little drunk and stoned. I looked up at the wall and Henry was staring at me. I don’t know what it was, but his smile had changed, or maybe it was gone. All I know is I couldn’t stay in the same room with that picture. (Erdrich, 189) This passage conveys a melancholic tone that aids in the revelation for Lyman to know that the past Henry he knew before the war did not return. His resistance to continue looking expresses Erdrich’s message on how the war also affect the loved ones of returned soldiers as Lyman experiences secondary traumatic stress in the passage. According to Kianpoor et al’s Secondary traumatic stress, dissociative and somatization symptoms in spouses of veterans with PTSD in Zahedan, Iran, secondary traumatic stress is prevalent in anyone who has a direct relationship with patients of post traumatic stress disorder are likely to accumulate the experiences of their patient’s trauma (Kianpoor et al, 2008, p. 4203). As said earlier, avoidance is one of the main symptoms of PTSD based upon Henry. Lyman exhibits this as he avoids the memory of Henry’s tragic change as implied in the picture. Lyman’s decision to dissociate is heartbreaking and relatable as facing the truth about one’s tragedy is difficult to comprehend and acknowledge and in turn reflects on his livelihood. It is effectively why the flashback works well in the story as it continues to be a relevant issue in families of soldiers.
Erdrich’s decision of having Lyman use present tenses to speak of Henry creates a sense of urgency as if the latter is still alive and present. This matter is important as it gives the reader tension on wonder to Henry’s state of living and to reflect on Lyman’s coping with Henry’s eventual demise. This is especially highlighted in the climatic passage of the story: I see he’s halfway across the water already, and I know he didn’t swim there but the current took him. It’s far. I hear his voice though, very clearly across it. “My boots are filling,” [Henry] says. He says this in a normal voice like he just noticed and he doesn’t know what to think of it. Then he’s gone. (Erdrich 193) To the reader’s perspective, this passage signifies Henry’s suicide. In contrast to Lyman, it is ambiguous as to whether he is alive. It is also significant that even in the climax of the passage, Lyman continues to use present tense. Thus, it expresses Lyman’s inability to cope properly of Henry’s death and also his resistance in moving on. By using his pain, Erdrich highlights the hardships that families bear. Regardless of suicide being involved or the soldier being killed while active, the lack of emotional closure remains and it remains a perpetual burden in their lives. This in turn makes it the most striking technique Erdrich uses in the story. It engages the reader with tension and empathy for Lyman and the loved ones of soldiers alike onto how hard it is to cope.
The 1970s and 1980s was a time of fraught and destruction for all involved with the Vietnam War. Erdrich delivers the disheartening consequences of the war through her control of literary techniques to convey the lack of emotional closure through the use of tenses; the emotional obstacles family members face and the revelations that come with it as reflected on the characterization and flashbacks used respectively. The Red Convertible is a bitter story to consume and understandably so due to the theme and the weight of its topics. Many soldiers choose to suffer silently in the own pain in their livelihood or choose suicide as a permanent escape once they come home. This leaves loved ones of those suffering and fallen to question what could they have done better and incite an unending cycle of longing and sadness. All of these emotions are succinctly captured in The Red Convertible. It forces readers to face these heavy issues that most would want to avoid. Only then where empathy can organically be grown in one’s heart and acknowledgement of the hardships be fully realized in society.
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