What is learned about the narrator in the story "The Red Convertible" by Louise Erdrich?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Louise Erdich’s story, “The Red Convertible” comes from her experiences growing up near a Chippewa reservation.  The time is 1974 following the Viet Nam War.  The narration of the story is provided by a first person narrator, Lyman Lamartine, a Chippewa Indian.   

The story is told by Lyman through flashbacks about his brother Henry.  He and Henry purchased a red Oldsmobile convertible.  Together the brother’s share one exciting experience during the summer with the car. They pick up a girl who was hitchhiking and take her home to Alaska. When they return to the North Dakota reservation, it is time for Henry to go into the Marines.

While Henry is gone to the war, Lyman places the convertible up on blocks to save it.  He works on it and fixes so that it was perfect.  The narrator hopes someday that Henry will give him the car outright.

Henry is taken prison by the Vietnamese and held for three years.  When Henry returns, he is not the same person.  His spirit has been broken.  It is obvious that underneath his unusual moods, there lay some horror that needed to come out.  After a family discussion, it was decided that there was really no help available for Henry, who has become jumpy and mean.

Lyman, the narrator, is a good brother.  He loves and cares for Henry. Lyman, worried about his brother’s outcome, decides to tear up the car, and ask his brother to fix it.  Henry begins to work on the car night and day.

When Henry finishes working on the car, he suggests that they take it out for a spin. As they are leaving, their sister wants to take a picture of them. Henry puts his arm around Lyman and the picture is taken.  Lyman tells the reader that he can no longer look at the picture.  He wraps it up and puts it the closet. 

Unfortunately, Henry is aware of the incurable tragedy that is taking place within him.  Henry says that he wants to go to the Red River because he wants to see the high water. They head off with a cooler of beer toward the river.  The river was high, and there was still snow on the ground.  They make a fire.  Lyman jumps on Henry and tells him over and over to “Wake up.”

Henry‘s face was white.  He broke and said:

'I know it. I can’t help it. It’s no use.'

Henry tells Lyman that he wants him to have the car because he has no use for it.  Lyman refuses, and they have a fist fight.  Henry begins to laugh and throws off his jacket, swinging his legs out from the knees like a fancy dancer. 

“Got to cool me off!” then he runs to the river and jumps in. It is night time, and Lyman sees his brother only once again.  Then, he is swept away by the current.  Lyman jumps in to try to get him back to shore.  He never finds him. Lyman drives the car off into the river and watches as it sinks. 

Lyman, as the narrator, suffers as he tells the story of his brother who was lost both physically and emotionally in the Viet Nam War.  Something happened to him during his imprisonment that he was never able to share.  Some guilt is felt by Lyman for not trying to get his brother help despite the family’s decision not to try. That last picture haunts Lyman:

‘There are shadows curved like little hooks around the ends of his smile, as if to frame it and try to keep it there—that one, first smile that looked like it might have hurt his face.’

That is the picture that is hidden in the closet that Lyman never wants to see again.