Big Bertha Stories Summary
by Bobbie Ann Mason

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Big Bertha Stories Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Set several years after Donald’s return from Vietnam, “Big Bertha Stories” dramatizes his inability to escape from his war experiences. The third-person narrative states directly the confused thoughts and feelings of Jeannette, but it reveals Donald’s deeply troubled mind only indirectly. Thus, Bobbie Ann Mason shows Donald’s isolation—his intense but unsuccessful attempts to communicate the horrors of combat—as well as the pain his problem inflicts on others.

Immediately after his tour in Vietnam, Donald seemed to adjust easily to civilian life. He had a good job at a lumberyard, enjoyed driving his classic Chevy convertible, and married Jeannette after a brief courtship. They lived happily for several years after the birth of Rodney. About two years before the time of this story, however, Donald deliberately collapsed a stack of lumber to get himself fired, sold his beloved automobile, and began to behave unpredictably. Now Donald works sporadically operating a steam shovel in the strip mines in Muhlenberg County, and he sees Jeannette and Rodney only during brief, unannounced visits home.

On these visits home, Donald tells Rodney bizarre stories featuring Big Bertha, a tall-tale heroine (based on a huge strip-mining machine) who is tall enough to see as far as Tennessee and whose powerful belches cause tornadoes. These fantastic stories both entrance and terrify Rodney, and they sometimes provoke nightmares. Just as the Big Bertha stories display Donald’s earnest but ineffective attempts to communicate with his son, Donald’s conversations with Jeannette repeatedly show his futile efforts to share with her his experiences in Vietnam. Using detailed descriptions, hand-drawn diagrams, and even a food-processor blade to simulate a Huey Cobra helicopter, he tries desperately to explain what happened but always concludes by proclaiming that she will never understand. In one long monologue, Donald describes Phan, a young Vietnamese woman who was apparently his lover before her village was destroyed. Powerless to tell Jeannette what the war was like and what he is feeling even now, Donald is also sexually impotent.

Separated from Donald both emotionally and...

(The entire section is 535 words.)