The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich

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What happens in The Red Convertible?

In "The Red Convertible," brothers Henry and Lyman purchase the red convertible together. When Henry returns from Vietnam, he's traumatized and withdrawn. One day, Henry drowns in the river, and Lyman lets the convertible slide into the waters after him.

  • Henry and Lyman purchase the convertible with the insurance money Lyman received for his restaurant, which was destroyed in a tornado. They spend a summer traveling together in the car before Henry gets shipped to Vietnam.

  • In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese capture Henry and hold him as a prisoner of war. When he's released, he's forever changed, and the bond between the brothers is all but broken.

  • Lyman tries to get Henry interested in the car again. These efforts take them to an icy river, where Henry drowns accidentally. Distraught, Lyman allows the red convertible to roll into the water after his brother.

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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...

(The entire section is 1,249 words.)