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Insight Text Guide

Iris Breuer

In the Lake of the Woods

Tim OBrien

Insight Publications

Copyright Insight Publications 2008 Copying for educational purposes: The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10% of the pages of this work, whichever is the greater, to be reproduced and/or communicated by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or the body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act. For details of the CAL licence for educational institutions contact: Copyright Agency Limited Level 19, 157 Liverpool Street Sydney NSW 2000 Telephone: (02) 9394 7600 Facsimile: (02) 9394 7601 E-mail: info@copyright.com.au Reproduction and Communication for other purposes: Except as permitted under the Act (for example, any fair dealing for the purposes of study, research, criticism or review) no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, communicated or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. All inquiries should be made to the publisher at the address below. First published in 1998, reprinted 2008 Insight Publications Pty Ltd ABN 57 005 102 983 219 Glenhuntly Road, Elsternwick Vic 3185 Australia. Tel: +61 3 9523 0044 Fax: +61 3 9523 2044 Email: books@insightpublications.com.au www.insightpublications.com.au Cover Design: Graphic Partners Internal Design & DTP: Sarn Potter Editing: Iris Breuer Printing: Hyde Park Press National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry: Breuer, Iris. Tim OBriens In the Lake of the Woods Bibliography ISBN 9781875882113 OBrien. Tim. 1946Criticism and interpretation. 2. OBrien, Tim, 1946-. In the lake of the woods. I. Title. (Series : Insight Text Guide) 813.54 The publishers wish to acknowledge the kind permission of Flamingo (HarperCollins Publishers) to reprint extracts from In the Lake of the Woods by Tim OBrien.

Introduction Context & background Genre, style & structure Chapter-by-chapter analysis Characters & relationships Themes & issues Questions & answers References & reading xx xx xx xx xx xx xx xx



Tim OBrien, a returned Vietnam veteran, is highly regarded for his ction about the ordinary American soldiers experiences in the Vietnam War. In the Lake of the Woods 1, his most innovative novel, combines the ctional story of John Wade with material from factual sources and the authors own footnoted comments and opinions. The novel opens with John Wades retreat, with his wife Kathy, to the Lake of the Woods in far north Minnesota. It is 1986. His landslide loss in the Minnesota Senate election spells his political ruin. He is trying to hold his marriage and himself together but the accumulated problems of his past trouble him deeply: a childhood deprived of his fathers love, his My Lai massacre experiences in Vietnam, his estrangement from Kathy, his political failure, his nightmares and psychological disturbances. In the rst chapter we learn that Kathy will disappear. Rather than tell us her story though, OBrien explores hypotheses. Did she lose her way going to the nearest neighbour? Stage her disappearance? Get lost on the lake? More ominously, did John Wade kill her? When Kathy is not found, Wade himself joins the search alone about four weeks later, only to disappear as well, making it impossible to solve the mystery of their disappearances. The novel becomes an investigation into the mysteries of John Wades personality and behaviour. His father withholds affection and humiliates him. He yearns for unconditional love and resorts to secrecy, spying and magic to compensate for inadequacies. His traumatic experiences in the My Lai massacre result in psychological instability that possibly began after his fathers suicide when he was 14. He attempts to deny his war involvement and later expunges his name from the records but the media unearths his Vietnam secrets to end his political career; he retreats to the Lake of the Woods, a ruined man, lonely and disturbed . OBrien explores the impossibility of ever really understanding human nature and whether the horrors of war atrocities signal the existence of sin and evil. Much of the novels success lies in the way the author presents an assemblage of information and possible scenarios that leave us musing on imponderables.


The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War (1964-1975) was the war between communist North Vietnam and the non-communist South. The communist supporters of the National Liberation Front came from both the North and the South. True to guerilla tactics, they would isolate the superior forces of the occupying enemy the Americans by politically mobilising local peasants and by using small bands of revolutionaries. Their unexpected night attacks spooked American soldiers and proved to be a successful strategy in the dense Vietnam jungles. The Geneva Conference of 1954 left Vietnam divided along the 17th parallel of latitude with the communist North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh and the pro-western South led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Preceding this, Vietnam, with Cambodia and Laos, had been called Indo-China and was under French rule. Ho Chi Minhs League for the Independence of Vietnam (known as Viet Minh or Vietminh) defeated France in 1954. Planned elections to choose a single government for the whole of Vietnam failed to eventuate and ghting resumed. From 1961 America was sending aid and military advisors to South Vietnam to stop the spread of communism (based on the theory of the domino effect that claimed one Asian country after another would fall to communism if the west did not intervene). In 1964 America became directly involved in the war in Vietnam when they claimed that the North Vietnamese attacked their destroyers. President Lyndon Johnson retaliated with the bombing of North Vietnam and Congress approved sending US troops to stem aggression and to repel further armed attacks. Between 1964 and 1968, while Lyndon Johnson was president, USA sent 500,000 troops to ght in Vietnam. However, this escalated the war and involved increasing American aid, which made Johnson unpopular.

My Lai/Thuan Yen
In 1968, the Vietcong intensied attacks on major cities including the capital Saigon. In March, the massacre of villagers in the obscure hamlet

of My Lai, also known as Thuan Yen, occurred. The killing by US soldiers of several hundred unarmed civilians is the central incident in the novel. The news of the My Lai massacre and the huge number of military and civilian casualties in the war shocked the US public; American support for the war quickly declined. On March 31 President Johnson decided to end the escalation and negotiate. However, in the face of his rising unpopularity, he did not stand again for President in 1968. President Nixon who followed said that he would end the Vietnam War but he sent troops into Cambodia and Laos and authorised the worst bombing of North Vietnam in the entire war. By November/December 1969 there were mass anti-Vietnam War demonstrations throughout America. It was not until 1973 that a ceasere was negotiated and the phased withdrawal of the then 550,000 American troops was announced. The North Vietnamese broke the ceasere and in 1975 captured Saigon which they renamed Ho Chi Minh City. In July 1976 the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed but the country was in economic ruin with an estimated 2 million dead, 4 million maimed and wounded, 50 per cent of the population homeless and the countrys industrial capacity reduced by 70 per cent. (Figures from The Hutchinson Dictionary of World History, 1993)

President Lyndon Johnson and the Novel key point

Note parallels between the ctional John Wade and President Johnson both had ambitions to reform and improve society, both craved popularity and affection, and the Vietnam War for quite different reasons played a critical role in the ending of their political careers.

Lyndon Johnson came to ofce after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1961 with the greatest majority of any elected president until then. His social reforms were overshadowed by his unpopularity over the Vietnam War. His leaving ofce is linked with his need for affection and popularity, which he lost because of Vietnam. Wade lost his bid for ofce because he hid his Vietnam years from the public, which resulted in his massive election loss.

The Vietnam War and the Novel key point

OBrien includes historically accurate material on the Vietnam War from The Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley.

The My Lai massacre, the most widely known incident of the war, resulted in an enquiry. The 1969 investigation found Lt. William Calley guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1971 but he was later released on parole. (His superior ofcer was acquitted.) OBrien imaginatively recreates the experience of the war through the consciousness of John Wade drawing on his own experiences, the accounts of returned Viet soldiers and the enormous amount of writing and study the Vietnam War has spawned in America. Material from the Court-Martial corroborates his depiction of the war.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder key point

Post is Latin for after or later and post-traumatic stress disorder (p. 144) is literally stress following trauma that is so intense that later it becomes a medical/ psychiatric disorder.

Recognised symptoms after trauma include sleep disorder, visions of the accident or atrocities, nightmares, shock followed by grief, often anger, even rage, and depression. If there is a predilection to some kind of psychological illness, then trauma can act as a trigger for that too. OBrien shows in the novel that Wade tried to consciously forget the atrocities he witnessed as well as those that he perpetrated; however, he also suffered an involuntary form of amnesia or blackout when the trauma was too great. Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery indicates the risk of posttraumatic stress disorder is highest when the individual has been an active participant in violent death or atrocity (p. 144). Later, Wades spontaneous replays of the horrors, and of his own killings of the old man and Weatherby, are symptomatic of stress levels beyond his control;

they also threatened the secrecy essential, in his view, to his well being while his nightmares terried Kathy. When Wade was out of control repeating Kill Jesus, gliding around unaware of what he was doing and with his blood sizzling, the stress and the rage he could neither control nor release (see the rst chapter) clearly constituted a disorder.


In the Lake of the Woods is a novel with many postmodern elements a mix of genres, focus on ambiguity/lack of a central meaning, a range of voices, validation of personal histories, playfulness and irony, intertextuality, the idea of the other and comments on the process of writing/creating to name a few. Comments on four elements follow.

A mix of genres
OBrien begins what appears to be a mystery, even a detective novel. However, he also cites from other texts and introduces other genres police reports, extracts from factual theoretical references, sections from the Trial of Lt. Calley an actual investigation into the massacre at My Lai. He challenges the usual ctional mode of the novel by mixing ction and fact and rather than solve the mystery he creates more.

A preoccupation with uncertainties and ambiguities

There is a disconcerting and unsettling uncertainty about the characters and related deeper issues in the novel. Ambiguity is central to postmodernism and this novel sets up a mystery but instead of solving it, poses questions many unanswerable. The reader is confronted with numerous possibilities and some probabilities, which move into considerations of human nature, the mystery of sin and evil, the status of evidence and truth and so on. The characters in the novel end up in an endless wilderness and formless lake a world without signposts, where individuals lose themselves in the repetitive sameness. Readers too have to negotiate apparent formlessness.

Lack of linear or chronological story line

OBrien departs from a chronological story line. The main elements of his novel are chapters that give us the key episodes and inuences in Wades life, hypotheses about Kathys disappearance, and Evidence. These are mixed and we are left to work out the chronology of events. This novel reects on the mysteries of actions and behaviour of the main