Paige is a Ray of Sunshine: Talking Murder and Massacre in In the Lake of the Woods
Quick Links from the Episode:
- Here’s the Britannica page on Tim O’Brien. You really know you’ve made it as an author when you get your own encyclopedia page!
- Amazing NPR interview with O’Brien on the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Things They Carried, this really gives insight into O’Brien’s goals for his work and his motivations.
- Another interview with O’Brien, reveals the deep emotional trauma that is still with him today.
- Here’s a link to Confederates in the Attic on Amazon. Jennifer would recommend this one again and again.
- For more info on the massacre at My Lai, see the following: Britannica entry, a retrospective piece from NPR, a 50th anniversary article from Smithsonian magazine. Obviously, this is just scratching the surface, entire books have been written about this massacre. If you want more extensive sources, we recommend searching in Google scholar, or on the Library of Congress website – an excellent place to find primary source material on the massacre and subsequent investigation.
- Click here for a satellite view of Lake of the Woods, bridging Minnesota and Canada. As you can tell, it is extremely large, filled with islands and small waterways, and would undoubtedly be treacherous for someone who did not know where they were going.
- The BBC has a fascinating article on the ouroboros, a common symbol found in the ancient world, most notably ancient Egypt and Greece. The ouroboros was also an important symbol in the Renaissance study of alchemy.
One look at the cover of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods and you know this is not going to be a fun ride. Could anything be more menacing than black waters lit only by the red light of a dying moon? It is as sinister and enigmatic as the work itself. This was a choice for our Books We Hate theme, but what exactly did Jennifer hate so much? Well, as assigned reading in a high school English class, the book didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. The constant bouncing between different times and places didn’t endear it to her, either. But what really caused Jennifer’s distaste was the ending: ambiguous and unresolved. You can’t be sure what really happened, and the lack of any concrete answers caused a teenage Jennifer to toss the book aside with frustration.
Tim O’Brien is a widely-celebrated, award-winning author, perhaps most known for his collection of short stories about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried and another Vietnam tale, Going After Cacciato. O’Brien is writing from experience, having served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. His wartime experience manifests in In the Lake of the Woods as well: the main character, John Wade, suffers a crippling political defeat after his participation in the massacre of My Lai is surfaced by his opponent. O’Brien has been roundly praised for his ability to convey the emotional journey of the soldier as they navigate the horror that is war – from joy and camaraderie, to rage and terror. His abilities in this regard are undoubtedly why he was awarded the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing in 2013 and has served as an endowed chair in creative writing at Texas State University.
I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam — the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers…More importantly, I carry the weight of responsibility, and a sense of abiding guilt.Tim O’Brien, from an interview with NPR (linked above).
Once you actually dive in, this is essentially a murder mystery/thriller – Jennifer is actually convinced it would make a great movie. Not one she would go to, though, too much suspense. What makes this book distinct from a Sue Grafton, for example, is that the reader is placed inside the head of the potential killer, watching as his sanity crumbles in around him.
In this episode, Paige breaks down the three parts of In the Lake of the Woods. There is the main narrative, driven by John Wade as he struggles to piece together what happened to his missing wife, Kathy. The next two parts are interspersed throughout John’s narrative and provide interesting counterpoints to his perspective. The first are hypothetical situations that could have happened to explain Kathy’s disappearance. Spoiler, none of them are particularly uplifting. The last part is comprised of the notes an unknown figure has been making about the case. BBE hypothesized that this was perhaps the work of an investigative journalist following the John Wade story. The interviews with relatives, law enforcement officials, facts about the area, and research into John Wade’s past would certainly suggest this. O’Brien expertly weaves these pieces together, crafting the perfect unreliable narrator in John Wade, and forcing the reader to constantly reconsider what they believe the truth to be. This style may not have suited high school Jennifer, but O’Brien is certainly effective at blurring the lines of reality, encouraging us to question the existence of abstract, objective “truth”.
It turns out that Paige didn’t hate this book. Honestly, after talking about it again, Jennifer isn’t so sure that she hates this book, as much as she found the experience of reading it to be distasteful. This is not a book for the faint of heart. It is uncomfortable, as any deep dive into the uglier sides of human nature should be. Paige didn’t enjoy it, but she gave it a BBE signature three stars out of five – meaning we probably won’t read it again, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.