Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mason wrote this story while she was working on her best-known novel, In Country (1985), and these two fictional accounts of soldiers returning from war display obvious similarities in characters and themes. Like the classic story of Ulysses, these works portray warriors attempting to find their way home after battle, but Mason’s modern characters are not honored as heroes, and the perils they must overcome are more psychological than physical.

As the title of this work indicates, Mason provides stories within her main story. Donald’s accounts of Big Bertha’s exploits are his efforts to make sense of his own chaotic experiences. Because Donald feels powerless, he creates a power of mythic proportions—a female equivalent of Paul Bunyan. In various embodiments, Big Bertha trains snakes to race, goes surfing, and leads a rock-and-roll band. Instead of creating order, however, Donald’s stories are confusing and inconclusive. They usually begin with carefree delights but soon shift inexplicably to scenes of horror. For example, Big Bertha and other surfers are frolicking with dolphins on a California beach, but a neutron bomb suddenly destroys everyone except Bertha. In another story, the location of a joyous Big Bertha concert turns out to be a toxic-waste dump, and its contamination spreads throughout the country.

Such narratives reveal much about the workings of Donald’s mind. He is searching for a super-heroic savior, but he finds nothing more than an implausible creation of his own desperate imagination. In their frenetic shifts from idyllic bliss to catastrophe, the stories about Big Bertha are veiled accounts of Donald’s actual experience in Vietnam. With Phan during interludes between battle, he found that place almost edenic. However, the war completely destroyed both the country and Donald’s innocence, leaving him to wander amid horrible memories. Just as he cannot bring his war experience to closure, he can never conclude his Big Bertha stories. These individual tales simply jerk to an abrupt and enigmatic halt, without any sense of orderly completion. Not knowing the fate of Phan, Donald cannot figure out the end of his own story. He feels compelled to keep talking to Jeannette about Vietnam, but any real conclusion eludes him.