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In Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods, Kathy Wade most definitely does not abide that “fundamental rule of the woods.” As O’Brien’s narrator points out while the hapless, possibly doomed woman powers her small boat through the rivers and lakes of the northern Minnesota boundary waters, Kathy is not even aware of that rule, “which was to stop moving if ever in doubt, to take shelter and wait to be found.” In fact, Kathy continues to maneuver her boat through unknown waters, certain only that she will be safe if and when she can find Angle Inlet. As O’Brien describes Kathy Wade, “[h]er eye was untrained. She had no instinct for the outdoors. She knew nothing about the sun’s autumn angles, or how to judge true north, or where in nature to look for help.”
Kathy, of course, is never seen again. O’Brien leaves her ultimate fate a mystery, just as John’s background was a mystery while he maneuvered his way up the ranks of Minnesota politics. The strains within their marriage, however, and the guilt Wade carries deep within himself have made his entire existence somewhat akin to the proverbial "house of cards." As Kathy continues to guide her boat in whatever direction she hopes will return her to the cabin, she contemplates her life with John and his failure to maintain a sense of perspective regarding the relative importance of those components that define his life. In this chapter of his novel, O’Brien is using Kathy’s predicament and her failure to abide by that most fundamental of rules regarding life in the woods as a metaphor for John’s life and ambitions. She envisions herself arriving safe and sound with “a good story for dinner” about “danger and high adventure” – something she hopes will prompt her husband to develop that sense of priorities, including where exactly their marriage ranks in the broader scheme of things. As O’Brien has Kathy consider John’s situation, she thinks to herself, “You could get lost in all sorts of ways – ways he’d never considered – and she’d tell him that.” John, O’Brien suggests, has violated his own rule about life in the woods; he has failed to stop and consider his situation and wait to be rescued. He has plunged ahead and the consequences will not be good for anybody. As noted, O'Brien does not resolve the mysteries of his story; that would be too pat, too tidy, and this veteran of the most contentious, politically-divisive war in modern U.S. history is too smart for that.
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