Six Bridges Book Festival: Tim O’Brien

Author of Acclaimed Vietnam War Novel to Appear at Virtual Book Festival

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried has earned high critical acclaim since its publication in 1990. A haunting blend of fiction and memoir usually called a “novel of the Vietnam War,” the book captures the cruelty and violence of war and the humanity of the soldiers caught up in it. O’Brien prefers to be thought of as a peace writer rather than a war writer, and that drive for peace in his narrative may be why The Things They Carried has left its mark in the hearts of so many readers.  In conjunction with the NEA Big Read, CALS is delighted to host Tim O’Brien at this year’s virtual Six Bridges Book Festival.

Named as a New York Times Book of the Century and a finalist for some of the most prestigious prizes in literature, including the Pulitzer Prize, The Things They Carried is a watershed work for countless readers. Some of those readers lived through the Vietnam War era themselves and find that the work gives a voice to their pain and frustration. Younger readers discover a window into the war that shows them in 200 elegant, beautifully crafted pages that there is good reason to question why human beings take up guns and kill each other at the order of politicians.

“The average age in our platoon, I guess, was nineteen or twenty,” says the novel’s narrator. Part of the horror of the war is the youth of those who are drafted into the military by forces beyond their control. Musings on a virginal girl at home, firm belief in the Bible, raunchy conversations, and even bursts of cruelty and violence–all bear the telltale marks of youth and inexperience. These young lives end without ceremony, vanishing beneath the muck of the swamp. There is no noble meaning to these deaths. This is war. The young Vietnamese man who dies at the hands of American forces suffers a death that is as much a violation and a theft as the death of any of the young Americans. O’Brien illuminates these truths through spare, powerful scenes that  skillfully walk the line between what can be told and what was too awful to tell.

Any work that struggled with the realities of the Vietnam War would cause controversy for many reasons, just as the war did, and The Things They Carried can still spark intense debate. Is it too harsh? Not harsh enough?

Why is any of the novel fictionalized? Shouldn’t it all be a factual chronicle, to be “truthful?”

The questions at the heart of the novel lie at the very center of what it means to remember, to reconstruct, and to examine painful realities. Asking why fiction may sometimes represent truth more accurately than a factual chronicle has taught thousands of students why human beings have been telling stories for thousands of years, and why the art of storytelling is deeply entwined with learning honesty and empathy.

O’Brien still finds it rewarding to talk about the book and the war with a new generation of readers.

“Most rewarding is engaging with a generation of younger people who did not live through America’s war in Vietnam and who often know very little about the war,” O Brien said. “The curiosity of young people in regard to that era has always amazed me.  Their questions are challenging and sometimes brilliant!”

The celebrated author looks forward to returning to Arkansas.

“Years ago—in fact, decades ago—I visited Little Rock as the guest of Gene Lyons, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the city,” O’Brien said. “Maybe a decade ago, I visited Hendrix College as the guest of Professor Alex Vernon and once again had a great time.  On this upcoming occasion, I look forward to engaging in discussions about The Things They Carried and taking part in Little Rock’s Big Read programs.”

 Tim O’Brien received the 1979 National Book Award for Going After Cacciato. Among his other books are In the Lake of the Woods, Tomcat in Love, If I Die in a Combat Zone, July, July and his most recent, Dad’s Maybe Book.



Feature by Rosslyn Elliott