Why do they argue and fight over the car in "The Red Convertible"? What does the red convertible symbolize? 

They argue and fight over the car in "The Red Convertible" as a resumption of their brotherly dialogue after a long hiatus. They want to each give the car to the other as a symbol of their love. The car represents their young and carefree days, when they could go on long road trips together and all their joys were shared experiences.

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When Lyman Lamartine and his brother finally begin talking on the bank of a swollen river in The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich, it is not long before they begin arguing and fighting, each for the right to give his brother the car they have jointly owned.

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When Lyman Lamartine and his brother finally begin talking on the bank of a swollen river in The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich, it is not long before they begin arguing and fighting, each for the right to give his brother the car they have jointly owned.

The car was bought together by them with their earnings, when Lyman was a boy of sixteen, and his older brother had not yet become a Marine enlisted to go and fight in the Vietnam war. It meant freedom and the pleasurable journeying of unburdened youth for both of them.

We went places in that car, me and Henry. We took off driving all one whole summer. We started off toward the Little Knife River and Mandaree in Fort Berthold and then we found ourselves down in Wakpala somehow, and then suddenly we were over in Montana on the Rocky Boy, and yet
the summer was not even half over. Some people hang on to details when they travel, but we didn't let them bother us and just lived our everyday lives here to there.

Although Lyman kept the car in good condition all the years his brother was away in Vietnam, and didn't even use it because he wanted to keep it safe for Henry, his brother seems to hardly notice it when he returns. From being a young man who knew how to make jokes, he has become silent, jumpy, and mean.

Lyman and his mother know there is something that needs to be done for Henry’s changed nature after returning from Vietnam, but there is no Indian doctor on their reservation, and they don’t want to take Henry to a regular hospital that, in their eyes, only hands out drugs, not healing. So, Lyman takes recourse to the car as a means to reawaken Henry’s interest in life. He takes a hammer to the well-preserved red convertible, so that it looks rundown, like a

typical Indian car that has been driven all its life on reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises—full of holes.

For a while it does seem as if this ruse might be successful, as Henry notices that the car is in need of repair, and Lyman challenges him to bring it up to scratch. He spends a long month completely absorbed in fixing the car. During this time, he is also able to avoid the color TV that had so mesmerized him at one point that he had bitten through his lip without noticing it. He begins to be a little more relaxed, and Lyman is able to hope that he is getting back to his old self.

When they take off for a road trip together in the restored red convertible, it is a time of some hope. But as they stop next to a swollen river and his brother sleeps, Lyman has a glimmer of the trauma that has been eating away at Henry. He wakes his brother and they begin to talk, and Henry reveals that he had seen through Lyman's ruse but went along anyway because he wanted to restore the car and give it to him. Lyman refuses to take the car, and Henry insists he has to, which leads to them getting physical and wrestling and hitting each other.

It is a kind of fighting through which each is attempting to recover their lost camaraderie. The car, a symbol of their shared happiness, is tossed about between them in their arguments as a measure of how much they love each other. This is all about their brotherly bond, expressed through the car that they have both owned together.

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