The Things They Carried By Tim O’Brien: My Review Plus Answers To Bookclub Discussion Questions

The Things They CarriedThis is my review and thoughts on The Things They Carried By Tim O’Brien.

Rating system:
God, I wish I had that time back in my life = 0
Eh, it wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read = 1
Shrug, I mean, it was okay = 2
I enjoyed it = 3

Have your read this book? It’s pretty good = 4
Wow, you need to read this book now = 5

The Things They Carried = 2.5

Here are my answers to book club questions provided by Lit Lovers who, in turn, state they got the questions from the publisher. Thanks guys for facilitating a closer look at the book!

1. Why is the first story, “The Things They Carried, ” written in third person? How does this serve to introduce the rest of the novel? What effect did it have on your experience of the novel when O’Brien switched to first person, and you realized the narrator was one of the soldiers?

I think switching it personalized the stories for me. Authors have a tendency to embellish for effect. However, Mr. O’Brien raises the question that most people who tell any kind of story embellish. It just depends on what the goal is for the author — what emotion does the narrator want to evoke.

2. In the list of all the things the soldiers carried, what item was most surprising? Which item did you find most evocative of the war? Which items stay with you?

Most surprising: The stockings.

Most evocative: Pictures of soldier’s sweethearts.

Stayed with me: Despite not being religious, the bible. It was a gift from his father, a connection to his family, to his religion, to his previous self.

3. In “On The Rainy River, ” we learn the 21-year-old O’Brien’s theory of courage: “Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory.” What might the 43-year-old O’Brien’s theory of courage be? Were you surprised when he described his entry into the Vietnam War as an act of cowardice? Do you agree that a person could enter a war as an act of cowardice?

Courage relates to fear. Fear can be overcome through experience. This is shown in the example of the field medic. He seemed like a coward, but he was afraid because he didn’t have experience. The more experience he garnered, the more courageous he seemed because he was no longer afraid. This is the same whether or not there is a war.

So, no. I don’t think you can save up your courage. You never know what circumstances you might find yourself in. You can prepare, and that will help, but life is full of surprises.

I think people can do a lot of things because they are afraid.

4. What is the role of shame in the lives of these soldiers? Does it drive them to acts of heroism, or stupidity? Or both? What is the relationship between shame and courage, according to O’Brien?

He states that shame is what keeps the men in line and what brought him into the war. The men that went to Vietnam were so young. It makes me think that an older Tim O’Brien might not be so easily convinced to go to war out of shame. As we get older, we realize that what other people think of us is irrelevant. I would like to know what an older O”Brien would have done on that lake between the United States and Canada.

5. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, ” what transforms Mary Anne into a predatory killer? Does it matter that Mary Anne is a woman? How so? What does the story tell us about the nature of the Vietnam War?

This was one of his complex stories that was an example of “a real war story”.

The story speaks to men, women, and their roles before and after the war. When these men went to war, they clung to their ideals of what a woman was — sweet, innocent, agreeable, a housewife is what they held onto. That is what they wanted to come home to. They didn’t want things to change. They wanted things to stay the same as before the war.

Women, on the other hand, were in fact changing. In the 60’s and 70’s, women wanted a stronger voice. The war, equal rights, workplace opportunities — these things were important to the women of that time. They didn’t want to be only a housewife anymore. So everything changed after the war, men, women, and expectations. Things just weren’t the same.

This is what Mary Anne represents. She doesn’t want to be just a stereotypical girl anymore. She wants to be in the thick of it, in the action, to be a part of the story, and not just as a soldier’s woman. Mary Anne in the story says as much. She said she’s never felt so alive. She participates with the soldiers, not just watching them. Like in civilian life, she didn’t want to be on the sidelines anymore.

Her boyfriend couldn’t handle it. He was happy when she played the role of beautiful, supportive girlfriend. He became displeased when she exited that limited view of a woman.

They try to make it work, but something is lost. He’s lost his ideal girl and his anchor to a life before the war. She tries to be the dutiful girlfriend, but she has tasted freedom from archaic expectations and she simply can’t go back.

To reiterate, they also didn’t want their women to change so that things could remain “the same”. The men knew they were changed from the war and they wanted something to stay the same.

6. The story Rat tells in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is highly fantastical. Does its lack of believability make it any less compelling? Do you believe it? Does it fit O’Brien’s criteria for a true war story?

The fact that it seems highly unbelievable does make it less compelling. For me, I feel like there are enough real life events in war to discuss without fantasy. In and of itself, yes, the story is compelling — filled with great metaphor and present day application. It can certainly be argued that by enhancing the story it gives traction to what the men were thinking and feeling with an outward display of those emotions. However, for me, I don’t need the added enhancement.

Yes, it fits O’Brien’s criteria for a true war story. It applies itself to what was going on with the soldiers and what the war did to and for men and women’s expectations.

7. In “Good Form” O’Brien casts doubt on the veracity of the entire novel. Why does he do so? Does it increase or decrease your understanding? What is the difference between “happening-truth” and “story-truth?”

He casts doubt on the whole novel to let you know that no real life story is always all true. We rewrite our own stories and experiences in many small ways. It depends on how we feel about an incident, perhaps how we came across, how we want to come across, and what we felt at the root of the experience. Therefore, that is the difference between story truth and happening truth.

Overall, I thought the book was thought provoking and a story that needed to be told. I thought his emphasis on what is a real war story was a unique take on the entire war experience, and for that matter, events that unfold in civilian life as well. Overall though, I felt like that point was driven home too much at the expense of the larger narrative. Metaphors can be used and story-truth can be used but the constant hitting over the head of the fact he was doing it became tiresome. I felt like the book was a bit disjointed as well. Despite my low rating, I would still definitely recommend it for a book club as I think it makes for a good discussion. I’m glad I read it, but ultimately it was not a favorite book of mine.

Since it was an audiobook, I must comment on the production quality and state it was top notch. The narration by the always impressive Bryan Cranston did not disappoint here. He was superb and a joy to listen to. This was an audiobook that was extremely well done on all accounts.

Until next time.


Madeline Fresco is a novelist who lives in San Diego. She is the author of CROSSED THE LINE, available for Kindle at, for Nook at Barnes & Noble, and as an ePub at other eBook retailers. You can also listen to her novel as a free, serialized audiobook Her second book THE CHOICE, is available on Kindle at Amazon. Her third book ANGUISH, is available for Kindle at

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