People are often confused about the mood and tone of a literary piece. The mood is how the reader feels. "The term mood is often used synonymously with atmosphere…"
The tone is how the author feels. The tone is...
...the way [the author] conveys [his/her] attitudes about particular characters and subject-matter
In Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible," because of the nature of the story, it may be easy to struggle with separating the two. The opening lines of the story reveal nothing to indicate what ultimately happens to the characters:
We owned [the convertible] together until his boots filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share.
However, by the end of the tale, the reader recognizes these details as foreshadowing, and the fate of the car and Lyman's brother are revealed. The plot development has taken the reader along, creating a mood that is infinitely sad. Henry and Lyman have lived the best times of their lives together with that car—until Henry comes home from Vietnam—a surviving prisoner of war. The brother Lyman knew and loved is gone, to be replaced by the mere shadow of the man he had been.
And so begins Lyman's struggle to bring Henry back...to the young man he so loved and now misses. It is through the car that Lyman attempts to do this, getting Henry interested in rejuvenating the old convertible. Lyman's flashbacks to better days and his fight to save Henry allow the reader to not only recognize the story's tone, but also witness in it Lyman's resilience—reflective of Erdrich's feelings about the struggle her native people face in society, and the enduring strength many of them have (as seen through her stories and books).
Erdrich's themes are...
Poverty, alcoholism, abandoned or distorted faith...balanced against self-worth, endurance, and love.
It is the tone of endurance that Erdrich acknowledges not only by her valuation of it, but also as a characteristic she imbues within her characters. Lyman's endurance—resiliency—is apparent not only in the numerous ways he attempts to once again help Henry become a part of the society he left when he went to war, but also in Lyman's final acceptance of Henry's choice to enter the water.
When they buy the car, Lyman tells the reader that it was love at first sight:
There it was, parked, large as life. Really as if it was alive….That car reposed, calm and gleaming...
Lyman and Henry bought it together, impulsively. But it personifies the best things of their life as brothers and also young men—still untried by the world, filled with anticipation of every opportunity that each day will bring:
We went places in that car, me and Henry.
By the end of the story, with Henry gone, the reader may find it natural that Lyman sends the car along with his brother. We see resilience simply in this act—his stoicism. He does not become hysterical. He does not grow enraged: for one could right do so in recognizing the inequities in Henry's experiences with the war—as many Americans have! And a line from the story's introduction also demonstrates Lyman's resilience—that life has changed in a tragic way, but that he still moves forward:
Now Henry owns the whole car, and his younger brother Lyman (that's myself), Lyman walks everywhere he goes.
Walking everywhere demonstrates Lyman's recognition of his loss; but by not purchasing another car, the reader can also see that he does not try to replace it—for like his brother Henry, replacement is not an option. Living with what has happened, adjusting to walk everywhere, further exemplifies his resilience, and Erdrich's recognition of that aspect of her Native American brother and sisters.