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Three elements that were significant in the story were the relationship between Henry and Lyman, the red convertible and Henry's psyche or Henry himself. When Henry returns from the war, his family really doesn't know how to help him. Not much was known about post-traumatic stress disorder at this time. Lyman remembers that fixing and driving the car was a bonding experience for them, so he bangs up the car to give Henry something constructive to do. Henry fixes the car and they go for a drive, at the end of which Henry kills himself. This might be a simplistic sentence to sum up the story, but it hits on all the major points: Henry fixed Lyman's broken car but the trauma he faced during the war made it impossible for him to fix himself.
Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible" follows the story of two Native American brothers--Lyman and Henry, Jr.--who live on a reservation in North Dakota. Henry is called up to serve in the Vietnam War and is eventually captured as a prisoner of war. While his brother is fighting overseas, Lyman works on restoring Henry's car. When Henry finally returns home, he is radically changed by his military experience. Lyman intentionally damages the car in order to give Henry a purpose, hoping that the two will be able to work on the car together. Instead, Henry labors alone.
The story concludes with the brothers taking a drive. After a cathartic moment of deep anguish and then laughter, Henry drowns in the river. Devastated by this, Lyman lets Henry's car slide into the river as well.
This story profoundly examines the role that PTSD plays in the lives of veterans, paying particular attention to the specific suffering of Native vets. It's difficult to summarize it in one sentence, but I suppose you could say:
After watching his brother Henry return home from a traumatic tour of service in the Vietnam War, Lyman unsuccessfully tries to bring life back to him through the restoration of a red convertible.
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