The Red Convertible

by Louise Erdrich

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Why does Lyman tell Henry to "wake up!" in "The Red Convertible"?

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Lyman tells Henry to wake up in "The Red Convertible" because he realizes with a flash of insight what his brother may be going through as he tries to get over the trauma of his experience in the war. Since his brother's return, they have been silent and not spoken about what happened to Henry. He suddenly doesn't want Henry to be alone with his struggle and attempts to wake him so that they can talk.

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It is while his brother lies sleeping beside a swollen river that Lyman Lamartine experiences first hand the emotions that his brother Henry has been feeling since he returned after being in the Vietnam war. In "The Red Convertible" by Louise Erdrich, the moment of understanding causes him to wake his brother up and attempt to talk to him.

Like most of Lyman's attempts to address his brother's changed and silent nature after his return from Vietnam, this is a purely instinctive action. Lyman is driven to wake up the sleeping Henry in a way he himself doesn't fully understand. All he knows is that he must not let Henry continue to sleep; he must get him to talk.

As I watched it I felt something squeezing inside me and tightening and trying to let go all at the same time. I knew I was not just feeling it myself; I knew I was feeling what Henry was going through at that moment. Except that I couldn't stand it, the closing and opening. I jumped to my feet. I took Henry by the shoulders, and I started shaking him. "Wake up," I says, "wake up, wake up, wake up!" I didn't know what had come over me. I sat down beside him again.

Henry wakes up and they begin to talk. It is not about Henry's trauma during the war, however, but of how he has been able to see through Lyman's ruse to get him more interested in the red convertible. The car, which is forever tied to a happier time in their past for Lyman, was kept in tip-top condition through all the years Lyman waited for his brother to get home from Vietnam. He deliberately wrecked it when he wanted his silent and withdrawn brother to take an interest in something. Challenged by Lyman to get the car back into condition, Henry worked at it and seemed to have recovered some of his old spirit.

They take a trip together in the car, but it is only after Lyman has woken up Henry that they actually begin to talk, drink together, and wrestle about in the roughhousing manner of some years past. When Lyman shakes him, it is a desperate attempt to communicate with his brother from a new placeā€”a place where he has been able to gauge the depth of his brother's struggle with the trauma of the war. He understands in a flash what his brother felt in returning to a home made strange by what he had seen since he had left it.

His shaking his brother awake is also a reflection of the urgency he himself feels. He wants to do something and do it fast, whatever it takes, to make his brother feel better.

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