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 flaws. He also digs deep trenches around his house to correct problems in the foundation. A neighbor jokingly suggests that Emmett may be digging to China, and he is indeed trying to uncover and solve psychological problems that originated on the other side of the world.
Sam and Emmett come together most evenings to watch reruns of M*A*S*H—another good example of Mason’s use of popular culture to underscore her themes. Although this television series actually deals with an army surgical hospital in the Korean War, it shows injuries and deaths similar to those in Vietnam. More important, for Emmett it helps to put the horrors of war in perspective by juxtaposing them with the irrepressible humor of Captain Hawkeye Pierce.
The most significant episode in the novel for both Emmett and Sam is a pilgrimage near the end of the summer. Along with Sam’s grandmother, the two main characters journey to Washington, D.C., to visit the newly dedicated Vietnam War Memorial. Visiting this site provides further insight for Sam and closure for Emmett. As they approach the Memorial, its influence (like that of the war) is still negative because it looks like a giant boomerang and a black gash in the earth. Soon, however, comforting images emerge as they see flowers blooming out of cracks in the wall. In scanning the list of casualties, Sam finds her own name included, just as Mason did on her own visit to the Memorial. Since the names Sam Hughes and Bobbie Mason are both relatively common and also gender ambiguous, their occurrence in a list of largely male war casualties is hardly surprising. This coincidence, however, demonstrates that the victims of war were not just combatants but also many people left at home—young and old, male and female.
At the end of her pilgrimage, Sam touches both the letters of her father’s name and those of her own as inscribed in the stone wall. In finally locating her father, she has also found herself. In the final sentence of In Country, Emmett sits like a statue of Buddha serenely contemplating the wall. Long after the war was officially over, he has finally found some personal peace.
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...
(The entire section is 2,886 words.)