For your banned book club: The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for adult and political authority, and sexually explicit or emotionally disturbing scenes, including war-time violence, death and cruelty. This book provoked a lot of discussion for us about the rightness of fighting or deserting in war-time.

“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. 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

Who is this Tim O’Brien?

  • Tim O’Brien, was born in 1946, in Austin, Minnesota and grew up in Worthington, the “Turkey Capital of the World.”
  • At Macalester College in St. Paul in the ’60s, he was part of the anti-war movement, graduating in 1968 with a degree in political science and a draft notice.
  • He ended up in the infantry in what has been called the “unlucky” U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry Division (AMERICAL) because of its involvement in the My Lai massacre, about which O’Brien writes in his novel In the Lake of the Woods.
  • After his tour of duty ended in 1970, O’Brien entered graduate school at Harvard but left to do an internship with the Washington Post.
  • With the publication of his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home, he deserted journalism to devote himself full time to fiction.  Since then, he has published seven novels, most dealing with Vietnam.
  • Most of his books, including The Things They Carried, are loosely based on events that actually happened to him.
  • Teaches creative writing at Southwest Texas State University in Austin, Texas.
  • The Things They Carried was challenged in 2006 in Arlington Heights-based Township High School District by parents objecting to explicit sexual images, graphic violence and vulgar language.

What do you think about The Things They Carried?

  1. What kinds of things do soldiers carry? What does O’Brien imply by listing these things?  What are some things you believe you carry, literally and figuratively, that would affect or reflect your reaction in war time?  Why does O’Brien use this as the book’s title?
  2. Why does O’Brien call this book fiction when so many of the stories seem autobiographical? What is the relationship between fact and truth for O’Brien? Do you agree?
  3. What is the role of humor among the soldiers? How do you feel about their humor?  Why is it different to you or to a soldier new to war than it is to those who have been in country a while?
  4. Why does Norman Bowker have a difficult time returning to the life he had left behind in the United States? What knowledge does he find impossible to express to people back home? Do you believe friends and family would be capable of understanding the viewpoint of someone like Bowker, just home from Vietnam, if only he would try to talk to them?
  5. The average age in O’Brien’s fictional platoon is 18 or 19. Describe the “exotic reform school” playfulness that this age group may demonstrate in wartime. Why would this age group react in ways older soldiers would not? Why are soldiers drafted at this age?
  6. Why does O’Brien retell incidents several times and why are his “recollections” different each time? Does this mirror anything in your own experience of storytelling?
  7. In “On the Rainy River,” the narrator writes that he was a “coward” because he went to war. Why doesn’t he cross into Canada?  Why does he think that makes him a coward?  How do you think you would have reacted to the possibility of being drafted for the Vietnam War and why? What if you were drafted for the war in Iraq?  Does it matter which war one is drafted into?
  8. Why is the old man, Elroy Berdahl, so significant in this story?  What does he do for the narrator?
  9. O’Brien says: “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever.” Why does he say this? Do you agree? Is this true historically?  What is the role of a patriotic citizen during wartime?
  10. The American Library Association recently reported that “twenty-five years after the first observance of Banned Books Week, more than 1,000 people stayed past 1 a.m. debating a request to remove nine books – including “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien …. The books were ultimately retained.”  Why are so many people concerned about adolescents reading this book?  Are they right to worry?  Why or why not?

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