What is the difference between "truth" and "evidence," as the narrator tries to explain throughout In the Lake of the Woods?  

The difference between truth and evidence which the narrator tries to explain is that evidence does not always point to the truth. Evidence is only the most obvious surface-level facts, and as such, it can be quite deceptive.

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In The Lake of the Woods is novelist Tim O'Brien 's indictment of America, whereby he puts a magnifying glass on the young nation's less-than-perfect past, spotlighting isolated spurts of violence and atrocity as alleged proof that the modern day vision of America as a shining city on the hill...

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In The Lake of the Woods is novelist Tim O'Brien's indictment of America, whereby he puts a magnifying glass on the young nation's less-than-perfect past, spotlighting isolated spurts of violence and atrocity as alleged proof that the modern day vision of America as a shining city on the hill is simply well-constructed myth.

Throughout the book, O'Brien constantly juxtaposes "truth" and "evidence," the former representing some literal fact or reality (even if that fact can't be known) and the latter representing some version of reality that is mere testimony by those who wish to create a narrative supporting their own version of the truth.

He sometimes refers to both "happening-truth" and "story-truth." Again, the former is revealed as the actuality of the experience, often a brutal and horrible thing that one is forced to witness, while the former is a machination that those same individuals construct over time as a way to accept and move past the truth. The "story-truth" can later be used by the storyteller as "evidence" of the truth they want to believe.

O'Brien's attempt to distinguish between these two concepts continues throughout and is perhaps most notably revealed in this section of chapter 6, where the narrator is discussing his investigation into the disappearance of the fictional Kathy Wade character:

I have tried, of course, to be faithful to the evidence. Yet evidence is not truth. It is only evident.

This passage perhaps best sums up the elegant simplicity in the concepts. While evidence is commonly believed to support truth, O'Brien imbues it with a more sinister connotation—that it may actually be used quite often to the opposite effect. That while it may look obvious and evincing, it may not lead to the actual truth. That evidence is only the reality one sees or wants to see.

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The difference between truth and evidence in Tim O’Brien’s novel is most immediately apparent as regards John Wade’s involvement in the My Lai massacre. Wade knows the truth: that he participated in the massacre. That is the reason he falsified crucial documents. But no matter how many false papers he files, he cannot hide the truth from himself.

As others gradually reveal knowledge of his involvement, Wade must come to terms with his dishonest behavior and its consequences. At the same time, however, his knowledge of what occurred that day is only a partial truth. Each participant had their own reasons for engaging in a war crime, and Wade is not privy to what went on in their heads.

Another place where truth and evidence are miles apart relates to the Wades’s marriage. While the reader never learns where Kathy went or why she left, the “evidence” presented shows that her view of their marriage was very different from John’s view. As others present their impressions about John’s and Kathy’s relationship, the reader is likely to feel that they increasingly move away from the truth rather than closer to it.

While each individual offers evidence of their impressions, the cumulative total has many discrepancies and, perhaps, omissions. It may be that someone knows what happened to Kathy but is not willing or able to say. Each person’s truth, or reason for staying silent, constitutes an individual decision.

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"Evidence is not truth. It is only evident" (p.30).

A constant theme of In The Lake of The Woods is the difference between evidence and truth. However, this challenges how we usually think of the relation between the two. Surely evidence is needed to establish the truth? However, the standpoint of John Wade is different and is entirely in keeping with the air of mystery and lack of closure which pervades the whole book.

Many of the chapters are entitled "Evidence." Here, Tim O'Brien sets out, often in painstaking detail, pieces of evidence relating not just to Kathy's disappearance, but also to John's alleged involvement with the infamous massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War. The author is setting before us an exhaustive, comprehensive collection of facts which we as readers are required to put together. It is not up to the author to present the truth, hints O'Brien; he/she can simply put together certain fragments and perspectives and allow readers to make up their own mind.

O'Brien's approach speaks to what he sees as the virtual impossibility of establishing the truth in any meaningful sense of the word. To that end, he is advancing a typically postmodern understanding of the truth, one that displays suspicion of any overarching meta-narratives that somehow transcend the complex world of reality and purport to establish the truth from an objective perspective.

The open-ended nature of claims about truth shown throughout the book is also suggestive of the philosophical distinction between fact and value. O'Brien piles up fact after fact, without at any time establishing the truth of the matter. The compilation and collation of facts requires a detached perspective, a way of looking at things associated most readily with the approach of scientists. The scientific approach gives us the factual evidence, but not the truth. The truth, if it is ever to be established, is something that must be lived and something that must be experienced by living, breathing human beings thrown headlong into a particular social and historical context.

As readers, we are forced to attempt to find the truth, if we wish to, by a process of empathetic identification with the book's characters. We must put ourselves in their shoes, retrace their steps, and live their lives in a spirit of imaginative reconstruction. We may never achieve anything by way of a conclusive ending (indeed, O'Brien would deny the possibility of ever doing so), but at least in making the attempt we would surely come to a deeper, more adequate understanding of how our notions of truth are often constructed in the here and now, rather than being handed down to us from a transcendent beyond.

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