Tim O’Brien’s 1994 novel, In the Lake of the Woods, journeys across many terrains, each hemmed by events which occurred March 16, 1968 in a remote Asian village. For there, forty years ago this week, a group of American infantrymen massacred between three and five hundred inhabitants of the tiny Vietnamese hamlet known as Thuan Yen. The dead could not be accurately counted as many victims were ditched and collectively gunned into fathomless traces. A handful of soldiers were involved, their bottomless hatred later revealed as details of what is known as the My Lai massacre crept into the news and general consciousness.
For O’Brien’s protagonist, John Wade, the landscapes of Vietnam and an association with the events at Thuan Yen combine in an explosion of bad publicity that cost him a United States Senate run. John and his wife, Kath, flee the post election turmoil of too many bills and aimlessness by borrowing a cabin at the top of Minnesota’s lake country. They come to the Lake of the Woods to grieve their losses and to reconnoiter their marriage’s drifting boundaries, placed under continued strain by politics and an undertow they have skirted for twenty years. Here at the lake is where the boundaries fade, happenings blur, and the story begins. O’Brien uses non-linear narrative perfectly, casting back and forth between present and past, between reality and conjecture, looking for truths and for one person.
Beyond the dock the big lake opened northward into Canada, where the water was everything, vast and very cold, and where there were secret channels and portages and bays and tangled forests and islands without names. Everywhere, for many thousand square miles, the wilderness was all one thing, like a great curving mirror, infinitely blue and beautiful, always the same. Which was what they had come for. They needed the solitude. They needed the repetition, the dense hypnotic drone of woods and water, but above all they needed to be together.
And here they both become lost. O’Brien maps out a plot without edges, only dark foam. His economic style weaves images, sympathies, and terrors for the young couple utilizing Midwestern simplicity and pace. There are peripheral characters near the Lake of the Woods as well, and the careful interspersion of chapters featuring ‘quotes’ from these extras adds the dimension and feel of verisimilitude. Most wonderfully, the reader becomes locked into the vortex of the Wade’s marriage, spinning and directionless with their failure to navigate safely.
Some things he would remember clearly. Other things he would remember only as shadows, or not at all. It was a matter of adhesion. What stuck and what didn’t.
What sticks for John Wade is the sensory mirage that is Thuan Yen. O’Brien places an almost delicate focus upon Wade as a young man caught up in events he cannot control.
At 7:22 on the morning of March 16, 1968, the lead elements of Charlie Company boarded a flight of helicopters that climbed into the thin, rosy sunlight, gathered into assault formation, then banked south and skimmed low and fast over scarred, mangled, bombed-out countryside toward a landing zone just west of Pinkville.
Something was wrong.
Maybe it was the sunlight.