In the Lake of the Woods

by Tim O’Brien

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

In the Lake of the Woods is also a novel concerning the Vietnam War. Although it shares many similar themes and stylistic choices with Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, it also introduces much more explicitly the American involvement in the massacres at My Lai and surrounding villages.

The book is the story of the disappearance of politician and Vietnam War veteran John Wade’s wife Kathy while the couple is vacationing at an isolated cabin in the north woods of Minnesota. Wade has just been soundly defeated in a primary election for the United States Senate. It was fully expected that Wade would easily win the election until the news media discovered that Wade had participated in the My Lai massacre during his tour of duty in 1968.

The book has thirty chapters. Some of the chapters have titles such as “What He Did Next,” “What Was Found,” and “Where They Looked.” The purpose of these chapters is to move the story of Kathy’s disappearance and the subsequent investigation forward. These chapters are interspersed with chapters called “Evidence,” and others called “Hypothesis.” The evidence chapters are excerpts from both real and imaginary texts, including handbooks on magic; transcripts from the court-martial trial of William Calley for the atrocities at My Lai; and interviews with characters about Wade’s childhood and his marriage to Kathy. Each of the sources is footnoted at the bottom of the page. This device contributes to the reader expectation that evidence will lead somewhere. Certainly, the accumulation of detail in these chapters is designed to build a case, but the ambiguity of the entire narrative makes it impossible to “read” the evidence convincingly.

In the “Hypothesis” chapters, an unnamed narrator offers suggestions of what might have happened to Kathy. These narratives are so convincing in detail that readers have to remind themselves that these are only hypotheses. That they are so believable is a tribute both to O’Brien’s skill and to the reader’s need to know what “really” happened.

A fourth set of chapters has titles such as “The Nature of Marriage,” “The Nature of the Beast,” and “The Nature of Politics.” These are the flashback chapters in which the details of Wade’s childhood, his courtship of Kathy, his marriage, his political career, and, most important, his military service are revealed. The details are troubling: Wade emerges as a man damaged by his father and his nation, someone who could, quite possibly, pour boiling water on his wife’s face while she is sleeping.

By the end of the novel, the reader has learned a great deal about John and Kathy Wade, about the Vietnam War, about the nature of investigation and evidence, and about storytelling. What the reader does not learn, however, is what has happened to Kathy, or, for that matter to John, who disappears on the Lake of the Woods himself in the closing scene.

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