THE THINGS THEY CARRIED is Tim O'Brien's beautiful, anguished collection of linked stories about Vietnam. In it, he blends diverse voices and events into an unforgettable portrayal of war and the people who fight it. Mingling fact with fiction, telling and retelling events from different points of view, the book is as much about war as it is about the difference between truth and reality.
"In many cases a true war story cannot be believed," he writes. "If you believe it, be skeptical. It's a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn't, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness."
As an example, take the story titled "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." In it, a young soldier named Mark Fossie is assigned to a medical detachment near a river called the Song Tra Bong. Also occupying the camp are a group of six Green Berets with whom the rest of the camp has little contact. Lonely and tired of the war, Mark concocts a plot to bring his girlfriend, Mary Anne Bell, to their camp. His friends think he's kidding, but one day she arrives. And she stays. At first she and Mark are inseparable, but gradually she becomes entranced with the country and fascinated by the war. She begins going out on patrol with the Green Berets, and one day she disappears into the mountains and is never seen again.
Fact? Fiction? Both? O'Brien convinces us it could have happened, but almost in the same breath he hints that it is pure fable. It is one of the most fascinating stories in the book, all the more so because it is impossible to know the truth.
Read the book, and decide for yourself if it happened, could have happened, or is just one of those crazy war stories that could never have happened.
Reviewed by Judith Handschuh on January 23, 2011