Memorial Day Reading

Posted: May 26, 2014 in Criticism, Literary Criticism, Memoire, Reviews

“But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget.”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried











The Boy from Bothell, by Gene Olson
Available through: Amazon

Today, I wanted to share a little Memorial Day reading.

Memorial Day is a strange one for me. I have no fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, husbands, or grandfathers that I have lost to war or military conflict. Those closest to me who had time in service were fortunate to come home. Still, today has a certain silence in my heart. I don’t know if it is the empathy for those close to me or my love of the military and the academic knowledge of those who did not come home, those who fought and died, sometimes for the greater good of our country. Sometimes, specifically to keep someone else from dying.

Was that someone a loved one of mine?

One of the things about war is its ability to silence. How often would I see the quiet look in my dad’s eyes when he would watch Platoon or Full Metal Jacket? By the time I understood the look, I did not know how to ask what it was. When I did, he could not always talk about it. I have a handful of stories about Vietnam from an experience that I know was far richer. I wonder, did he experience the same with his father about Korea? What was it like for the children and wives of the men who returned from World War II or World War I – that war so horrifying that people committed suicide rather than face a second.

“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

I think this silence is why we watch movies about the wars, buy the Time Life Books, and read. The soldier, afraid to burden those he loves with pain – or perhaps afraid he will drive them away with the horror he faced – may talk to a stranger about the things he won’t tell those closest. By seeing these tales we understand a little more of what those soldiers closest to us, who don’t talk, went through. Whether it is a memoir where the veteran delves into his own psyche or a reworking of a classic novel, it gives us something that makes us feel a little closer to those who know the truth of war and service more than we civilians ever could.

And it is here, I think, that the flaws tossed into the face of the self-published novel flourish. I read a lot of self-published books and stories, and I tend to recommend them all. Memoirs are the one I will say, however, are a must-read from the sea of self-published works out there. A self-published memoir is likely to be the closest glimpse into the mind and experience of a soldier you will ever get because, while it is released without the threshold guardians of agents and publishers, it is also untarnished by their demands and expectations.

The Boy from Bothell is more than just a memoir about the Vietnam war, as Olson also shares his struggles with bi-polar disorder. And while I recommend the book for understanding and glimpsing that as well, and for the same reasons, it is his experience in Vietnam that I want to focus on today.

When I read the first paragraphs of the story, the first thing that struck me was the form. The grammar is good, but the paragraph structures vary, from long to short, even a single sentence. Sometimes they transition, other times they make sharp cuts, moving us from the hazy memories of early infancy to a new house at eleven months old in a few paragraphs, with no space or warning. It’s a sin we’re warned about early in writing. Use transition sentences from paragraph to paragraph. Read: fluff those ideas so that you don’t startle your reader, and benefit from the extra word count in the process.

Olson does not dare, and it is not long before you appreciate this in his prose. He leaps from moment to moment, sometimes recollecting something in his own childhood, other times recalling something of his own children when he compares his first experience at rock throwing with that of his son. This is the way memories move, and very quickly this becomes apparent to our own mind. The sharp jumps that would be a terrible sin in fiction bring us along with him as we move from idea to idea, lesson to lesson, memory to memory. Something that in fiction would jar me from the story kept me engaged and reading several more pages than I normally would before pausing for notes.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Olson’s prose is how he ties high and low, joy and sorrow together in his memories. One example, fitting for Memorial day, is this passage, which follows the good news he receives of his sisters coming wedding, and his anger and sadness for not being able to be there for her big day.

As the small boat came closer, I was able to see more and report it to the pilot house.

“There is a green tarp … wrapped around a body … only thing visible is a pair of muddy boots.”

I stopped. I wondered. How many people would be affected by his death? Maybe a mother, a father, brothers, sisters, relatives? Ore maybe a wife, sons, daughters, a girlfriend? 

The more I thought about this dead soldier, a stranger to me, the more my sister’s wedding became insignificant. I was alive!

“There’s a helicopter coming in.”

Another “killed in action.”

Later in the ship’s office, a soldier came to the door. “Can I borrow your typewriter? I need to type out a death report.”

His eyes became a little watery. Then he told me about one of his buddies. His friend had been preparing a death report on a close friend. Before finishing, he had gone “berserk.”

“If a friend of mine was killed, I’d refuse to type the death report,” he told me.

If a friend of mine was killed, I didn’t know what I would do.

The passage is short, the disjointed details of memory that fill this memoir. It also points out the ways that war and service change a soldier, his perspective and his outlook. Prior to his watch, he had been angry, ready to scream about the frustration of being so far from home, of missing out on the important milestones of his family.

Now, everything was in perspective. Next to the life and death struggles around him, next to the very real impacts of war, what were these milestones really? Moments in time, but no more significant than the body on the barge approaching them.

With that, I will leave you with the last quote, from The Things They Carried.

“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried


The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Boy from Bothell by Gene Olson



Comments are closed.