(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The two main characters of In Country are Sam Hughes, a seventeen-year-old girl from Hopewell, Kentucky, and her uncle, Emmett Smith, a Vietnam War veteran. Emmett becomes a surrogate parent for Sam because her father died in Vietnam before her birth and her mother has remarried and established a new family miles away in Lexington. Sam and Emmett live together in a decrepit house and form another of Mason’s unconventional modern families.

With these two main characters Mason combines the themes of initiation and recovery. In the course of the summer, Sam comes of age, and Emmett simultaneously attempts to resolve the residual problems from his military service in Vietnam.

Sam moves toward maturity by examining the past—primarily the war that took the father she never knew. The search for a father is a common motif in initiation stories since knowing one’s heritage may help to define one’s sense of self. Sam tries to clarify her identity by reading old letters and journal entries written by her father, by briefly dating a Vietnam War veteran, and by staging a mock military exercise at a nearby swamp that she thinks may display topography much like that of Vietnam.

Emmett attempts to fix his battered psyche by using construction or reconstruction techniques similar to those in other Mason stories such as “Shiloh” and “The Rookers.” He repairs defects in physical objects, such as toasters and hair dryers, in hopes that such actions will help him to fix internal...

(The entire section is 622 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Part 1. Sam Hughes, her uncle Emmett Smith, and her paternal grandmother Mamaw are traveling from their hometown of Hopewell, Kentucky, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Their travel is slowed by the faulty transmission of their Volkswagen, so they decide to spend the night in a motel. At dinner, Mamaw wonders what life might have been like had Sam’s father, Dwayne Hughes, survived the Vietnam War. The next day, the trio is stranded on a Maryland highway and is forced to spend another night in a motel while the car is repaired.

Part 2. Earlier in the summer, Sam had graduated from high school and began living in her mother’s house, along with Uncle Emmett, a jobless Vietnam veteran with unresolved health issues. Worries about Emmett and her desire to learn more about her father make the Vietnam War central to Sam’s thoughts for the rest of the summer.

Sam spends the summer in the company of her boyfriend, Lonnie Malone, and her friend Dawn. One night, Lonnie, Emmett, and Sam visit nearby Cawood Pond, where they smoke marijuana. The next day, Dawn pierces Sam’s ears. Sam also spends time with her uncle and his friends, Tom and Pete, who are also Vietnam veterans, and sometimes joins them for breakfast at McDonald’s, quizzing them about the war.

Sam visits Anita Stevens, a nurse and Emmett’s former girlfriend, encouraging her to get back into Emmett’s life and asking her for advice about Emmett’s medical problems. Sam continues to piece together the experience of Vietnam in whatever ways she can, remembering films about the war, connecting the Kentucky landscape with farmlands in Vietnam, and speaking with local veterans. Dinner at the home of Lonnie’s parents reveals the feelings of ordinary citizens regarding the war and those who fought in it.

Sam finally gets Emmett to see a doctor about his skin problem, which she is convinced is due to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, but the doctor dismisses this theory as unlikely. Anita comes for dinner one evening, and Emmett agrees to attend the dance being organized by Jim for the Vietnam veterans.

Dropping by Tom’s auto-repair shop on her frequent runs through town, Sam starts to develop a romantic interest in Tom. During their impromptu tour of the clock tower of the courthouse, where Emmett once flew the Viet Cong flag, their attraction for each other intensifies. As her interest in Tom waxes, her feelings for Lonnie wane, and when Lonnie announces that he will be gone for several days to participate in his brother’s bachelor party, Sam decides that she will pursue Tom at the dance. Meanwhile, Dawn reveals that she is pregnant.

At the dance, Sam...

(The entire section is 1115 words.)