The Things They Carried is both true and entirely fictional. After being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War, ‘On The Rainy River’ tells the imagined story of the twenty-one-year-old O’Brien fleeing to the Canadian border and staying at a dilapidated lodge for six days where he agonises over whether or not he should avoid the draft by crossing the Rainy River which separates Minnesota from Canada. His host is the owner of the lodge, an old man named Elroy Berdahl, who while understanding the narrator’s predicament remains steadfastly silent on the matter, making no attempt to sway his decision either way. O’Brien writes about Elroy and the narrator’s dilemma: “…, the man understood that words were insufficient. The problem had gone beyond discussion.” I won’t go as far as to reveal what he finally decides to do—though you might guess—but what I will say is that O’Brien’s account of the inner turmoil experienced by the narrator as he finally arrives at his decision is among the most authentic and gut-wrenching writing I have ever read. Indeed, I would count The Things They Carried as not only the best war literature I’ve encountered, but also place it high among the finest works of literature created by any author.
First published in Playboy, January 1990. Collected in The Things They Carried, Collins 1990