In the Lake of the Woods | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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In the Lake of the Woods | Plot Summary

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The book is presented like an investigation. More details of the story are revealed as the story and the investigation progress. Each Evidence chapter provides a new hypothesis or interpretation, and every Hypothesis chapter reveals more of the storyline and additional details that connect to the evidence. Through this approach, O'Brien brings the reader right into the story as an investigator looking into an older, unsolved case.

John and Kathy Wade

John Wade and his wife Kathy flee the fallout of a political loss by escaping to a remote cottage on the edge of Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota-Canada border. They spend their evenings lying on the porch and dreaming about what life could be as they try to pretend that their marriage and lives will recover from the loss. They spend the seventh day of their stay at the cottage making a grocery list, swimming, and running errands in town. At the local diner, their frustration boils over and they argue in public. Upon returning home they play backgammon and take a short walk. They don't resolve the fight, nor do they "take their blankets to the porch that night."

Twice that night John wakes and gets out of bed in a trance-like state. He boils water in a tea kettle and reflects on the unfairness of his loss. He grabs the teakettle, mutters "Kill Jesus," and dumps the boiling water over the plants in the cottage. He loses himself between the gaps in his memory and only recalls glimpses of himself standing waist-deep in the lake, being completely submerged in the water, sitting naked on the dock, and sitting next to the bed watching Kathy sleep. Finally, he wakes in bed and reaches for Kathy who isn't there, so he "hugged his pillow and returned to the bottoms."

The next day John sleeps until noon, and when he wakes, Kathy is gone. He isn't overly concerned about her absence because she often goes out alone to walk in the woods. Her absence is merely a nagging presence as he drinks himself through the day. By evening he grows more alarmed, yet continues to try to set his worries aside until finally, just after midnight, he checks the boat house and notices the absent boat. He then heads to the neighboring house of Claude and Ruth Rasmussen who own the cottage the Wades are staying in.

The next morning the County Sheriff, Arthur J. Lux, and the local part-time policeman, Vincent R. (Vinny) Pearson, arrive, and a full-scale search is launched. John is questioned by the police, and despite his acknowledgment that everyone seems to think he is guilty, Claude and Ruth Rasmussen believe in his innocence and offer kindness and support.

The next day the search continues, and Kathy's sister, Patricia S. (Pat) Hood, arrives from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her feelings toward John have always been slightly antagonistic, but this time they seem to be mixed. At times she is standoffish and suspicious; at other times she sets her suspicions aside, and her actions imply a sense of sympathy. Despite John's hesitation to join in the search previously, and Vinny Pearson's insinuations that he hasn't made any effort toward finding his wife, John is both concerned about Kathy and at the same time certain that she will not be found. It is hard to determine if he is apathetic because he knows what happened or is just in shock over his wife's disappearance. The search continues for weeks, with Claude taking Pat and John out in his boat every morning to spend the days searching. After three weeks, the search tapers off and is eventually ended without a trace of Kathy.

When John hears of the official end of the search from Claude, he decides to search for Kathy on his own and leave before Sheriff Lux and the Minnesota State Police come to the cottage to search for evidence. Claude, despite rebuffing John's previous attempts to take the boat out alone, leaves its key and a letter on the kitchen table. John takes off into the seemingly endless Lake of the Woods and heads north. He uses the onboard radio to transmit a brief conversation with Claude who informs him that the police haven't found anything.

Throughout the night John drinks vodka and again, in a dream-state, transmits one-sided conversations with himself over the airwaves. At dawn, nearing frostbite, he drops the radio overboard and heads north once again. The novel ends without saying definitively what happens to either John or Kathy.

John's Past

Flashbacks are woven throughout the novel, beginning with his father's death when John is 14. The flashbacks then progress through John's adolescence, his learning of magic, and his meeting Kathy while in college. John begins to follow and spy on Kathy, and while there are indications that she knows this is happening, she puts up with it and never lets on that she knows. In some flashbacks, she disappears, leaving parties without so much as a goodbye, and this infuriates the part of John that seeks control and is continually drawn to her. Despite this foreshadowing of problems to come, they fall in love.

After John graduates from college, he is deployed to Vietnam where he becomes known as Sorcerer. These flashbacks show him practicing magic for Charlie Company, and the line between mystical and real become blurred. While in Vietnam, John and his fellow soldiers in Charlie Company are involved in the massacre of hundreds of civilians—women, children, and old men—in the hamlet of Thuan Yen. John kills two men in the massacre: an old man and a fellow soldier, Private First Class (PFC) Weatherby. John extends his tour in Vietnam in an attempt to come to terms with the trauma he experiences at Thuan Yen. When he finds himself at a desk job, he takes the opportunity to erase himself from the records placing him at the massacre.

In yet more flashbacks, when John returns to the United States from Vietnam, he returns to spying on Kathy. John and Kathy marry and John begins to work toward a life of political service. Just when it looks like he may be elected to the U.S. Senate, the truth of Thuan Yen comes out, and his past costs him the election, his political future, and ultimately his marriage.


The Hypothesis chapters are flashbacks that explain what Kathy and John "might" have done. The first begins with the assumption that she becomes fed up with her marriage and life and escapes in a waiting car. The second presumes that she is scared of John and his actions, and she sets off on foot toward the Rasmussen's place only to get lost. However, this hypothesis hints that "Maybe she's still out there." The third supposes that Kathy, needing some space and air, takes the boat, has an accident on the rocks, and drowns in the lake. The hypothesis sections that follow this suggest that after taking the boat she becomes lost and spends the night on a nearby island. Upon waking she sets off again, hopeful that she would return to John again, though the odds of her survival are low. Yet another assumption is that she has been unhappy for most of her marriage, takes the pills she has been prescribed, heads out in the boat, and goes to sleep—never to wake again. Near the end of the book, the most disturbing hypothesis touches on the possibility of John's guilt. He pours the boiling water from the teakettle over a sleeping Kathy and then carries her outside, sinking her and the boat beneath the surface of the lake. The final hypothesis in the last chapter of the book suggests that maybe Kathy disappears, and that John, an innocent man broken by grief, sets out and loses himself on the water, as well—that perhaps John and Kathy escape life and live happily together in death.


The evidence chapters present testimony and assumptions of people surrounding the case. Quotations of historical and literary figures are also included. Many of these sections have footnotes that provide context and historical connections, which lend an air of legitimacy and make the novel feel as though it is non-fiction. At the end of the second evidence section, the author introduces himself as someone who has investigated the disappearance of Kathy Wade for four years. It ends with, "In any case, Kathy Wade is forever missing, and if you require solutions you will have to look beyond these pages. Or read a different book."

In the Lake of the Woods Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 John Wade's Vietnam past is revealed.

Rising Action

2 John loses the election for the U.S. Senate.

3 John and his wife Kathy rent a cottage at Lake of the Woods.

4 John and Kathy get into a fight while in town having dinner.

5 John wakes up and discovers that Kathy is gone.

6 A wide-scale search ensues, but ends after one month.


7 John takes the boat and sets off on his own.

Falling Action

8 John contacts Claude for the last time on the boat radio.


9 John disappears.

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