The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Finding Solace in the Pages of War

Tim O’Brien. © Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin

Next week, we celebrate the birthday of novelist and Big Read author, Tim O'Brien. Like many young American men in the late 1960s, O'Brien was drafted and fought in Vietnam. Much of his literary work concerns that war and its aftermath, including the National Book Award Winner, Going After Cacciato and the 1990 Pulitzer Prize finalist and Big Read selection, The Things They Carried.

The Things They Carried is a work of fiction presented as a memoir; it follows the men of the fictional Alpha Company as they slog their way through the jungles of Vietnam. One of their members is a foot soldier named Tim O'Brien who, after 30 years, remains haunted by his experiences in that war.

However specific the details of the book might be---and his recounting of the lushness of the jungle, the density of the mud, and the thickness of the air can make a reader in a Maine winter long for a cool breeze---O'Brien's story is a universal one that describes war's indescribable chaos, the impact of that dislocation and madness on soldiers who are mostly boys, and the power of storytelling to create not meaning but order.

In another century, in another war, on another continent, veteran Craig Mullaney also discovered how crafting a story gave shape to the disorder of war, writing a memoir about his experience in the army called The Unforgiving Minute: One Soldier's Education. In 2003, Mullaney, who had graduated from the United States Military Academy, led an infantry rifle platoon along the hostile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that time of enormous uncertainty, he found solace in the pages of Tim O'Brien's book. [3:15]



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