The Red Convertible Summary
by Louise Erdrich

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The Red Convertible Summary

"The Red Convertible" is a short story by Louise Erdrich in which brothers Henry and Lyman purchase a red convertible together. When Henry returns from the Vietnam war, he and Lyman struggle to connect.

  • Henry and Lyman spend a summer traveling together in the red convertible before Henry gets deployed to Vietnam.

  • In Vietnam, Henry becomes a prisoner of war. When he's released, he's traumatized, and the brothers have trouble connecting.

  • Lyman tries to get Henry interested in the car again. However, after Henry drowns in a river, Lyman allows the red convertible to roll into the water after him.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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“The Red Convertible,” which also forms a chapter in Louise Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine (1984, 1993), is the story of two Native American brothers, Lyman Lamartine and his older sibling, Henry, Jr. Narrated by Lyman, the story explores the relationship between the brothers before and after Henry’s combat experience in Vietnam, where he was held as a prisoner of war.

The story begins on an American Indian reservation in North Dakota. Lyman has received a large insurance check after a tornado destroyed his restaurant. He and Henry, a laid-off factory worker, buy a red convertible. Free of daily responsibilities, they take to the open road in their flashy automobile. Along the way, they pick up Susy, a Native American woman who is hitchhiking. After giving her a ride to her home in Chicken, Alaska, they spend the summer with her family. Their idyllic journey comes to an end when they return to their reservation and discover that Henry, who had volunteered for military service, has been called to report for duty.

After nine months of combat duty in Vietnam, Henry is captured by the North Vietnamese and imprisoned for six months. During Henry’s absence, Lyman restores the travel-worn car. Working on the convertible provides Lyman with a tangible link to his brother. When Henry finally returns home, he is profoundly changed. Gone is the fun-loving child, and in his place is a jumpy, mean, and withdrawn man who rarely speaks. He spends his days sitting quietly but restlessly in front of the color television set. Because there are no Native American doctors on the reservation, Lyman and his mother consider sending Henry to a psychiatric hospital but ultimately reject the notion. Instead, Lyman believes that the red convertible might somehow bring the old Henry back.

Taking a hammer to the car, Lyman beats the body and undercarriage out of shape. It takes a month for Henry to notice the damage, but when he does, he berates Lyman for allowing the car to deteriorate. He sets about fixing it himself, without Lyman’s help. Lyman is disappointed because he had hoped that he and Henry would repair the convertible together, thereby reestablishing the close bond they had once shared. As Henry works on the car, he seems to revert to his prewar self, but the change proves to be superficial. After the car is restored, Bonita, Henry and Lyman’s younger sister, takes a picture of them standing in front of the now-pristine automobile.

Henry suggests that they take the car for a spin, and the men head for the Red River. It is early spring, and the river is swollen with water from melting snow. As they sit on the bank, Lyman becomes aware of a squeezing sensation in his chest and realizes that he is feeling the same anguish that Henry is experiencing at that moment. Frightened, he shakes Henry’s shoulders and yells, “Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up!” Henry, resigned, tells Lyman, “It’s no use,” and insists that Lyman take the car as his own. Lyman protests that he does not want the car, and the brothers engage in a fistfight. Suddenly they stop fighting and start laughing uncontrollably. The tension is broken, and Henry begins to dance wildly. Telling Lyman that he needs to cool off, Henry runs to the river, jumps in, and is taken by the current. Lyman realizes that his brother is in trouble and calls out to him....

(The entire section is 1,249 words.)