Thursday, December 8, 2011





Tim O’Brien’s Things They Carried tells the story of Alpha group: several soldiers as the fight and try to survive physically and emotionally intact during the Vietnam War. Thought labeled as a work of fiction, the author names the narrator after himself and many of the experiences are reflections, direct or otherwise, of the author’s experience fighting a war he did not believe in. Tim O’Brien, the character, writes how he ran to Canada to evade the draft. However, he was too afraid of the opinion of his family to desert and ultimately he returns to serve because he is a coward. As the group travels, there are many losses, from outside forces and ones from within. One soldier has a breakdown and shoots himself in the foot to escape active duty. The others do not blame him because the things they have seen and experienced have marked them for life. One of the soldiers, Norman, survives the war, only to return and commit suicide. Tim is shot twice through the course of the book. The second time, he is treated by an inexperienced medic and nearly dies. Tim plays a cruel joke on the man by pretending to be a enemy soldier while the medic is on watch. Tim sees people on both sides die horrible deaths from grenades, chemicals weapons and even a completely ordinary mud slide. All of the experiences, whether horrifying or amusing are told by Tim because he believes that storytelling is a powerful act that can memorialize the events of the war.


O’Brien, T. (1991). The things they carried. New York, NY: Penguin Books.


I really enjoyed this book despite its dark themes. I love history and this told a very personal recounting of several individuals’ experiences in Vietnam. It is also interesting to note that the book is almost autobiographical in nature; this adds an additional element while reading of trying to discern which experiences actually happened to the author and what he took creative license with.  Though the book is often graphic in nature and some of the scenes are extremely disturbing, there also instances of boredom as the soldiers wait for orders. This contrast seems very real to the reader; some of the practical jokes that were played also brought a sense of innocence that was reality of many of these extremely young men. Over the course of the book, I felt that the story lost its naivety as the soldiers did. At times amusing, haunting and redemptive this is a great book that is real in its portrayal of the soldiers in Vietnam and its impact on the reader.


Hawkins, B. (1991, February). [Book review of The things they carried, T. O'Brien]. School Library 

           Journal. Available from School Library Journal website:

A series of stories about the Vietnam experience, based on the author's recollections. O'Brien begins by sharing the talismans and treasures his select small band of young soldiers carry into battle. The tales, ranging from a paragraph to 20 or so pages, reveal one truth after another. Sometimes the author tells the same story from different points of view, revealing the lingering, sometimes consuming, effect war leaves on the soul. In the end, readers are left with a mental and emotional sphere of mirrors, each reflecting a speck of truth about the things men carry into and out of war. In addition to leisure reading, this collection offers potential for history classes studying war, for English classes doing units on short stories, and perhaps for sociology or psychology assignments.

In a library setting this book would have to be handled carefully because it is a controversial book. It would be a great book club book for older, mature readers. This would especially be pertinent to a group of older teens to relate this story to the current atmosphere surrounding the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts.  It could also be part of a Veteran Day’s program or a history program on war or Vietnam. The program could involve a community read of the book and talks by local war veterans.

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