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The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong | Summary

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Summary

Before Rat Kiley joins Alpha Company, he serves with a medical detachment near the village of Tra Bong that stabilizes wounded soldiers before sending them to the hospital. The work is "gory ... but predictable." The soldier in command, Eddie Diamond, isn't an officer, and the men live more comfortably than soldiers like those in Alpha Company. Usually the "war seemed to be somewhere far away."

The countryside is exotic, with "triple-canopied jungle," waterfalls, tall grasses, and the river Song Tra Bong. Six Green Berets, also called the "Greenies," live at the edge of the compound. "Secretive and suspicious," they disappear into the jungle for days or weeks on mysterious missions.

An 18-year-old medic, Mark Fossie, decides to have his girlfriend visit him. Although it seems impossible, six weeks later, as a result of his efforts, 17-year-old Mary Anne Bell arrives. Mark and Mary Anne have been "sweethearts" since sixth grade and have "known for a fact" that they'd marry and have a typical life with a house and children. For two weeks the couple is nearly inseparable.

The other soldiers like Mary Anne. Her "good quick mind" takes her all over the compound, even among the South Vietnamese soldiers. She persuades Mark to take her to visit a nearby village to see how the people live and swims in the river despite the danger of possible snipers. Mary Anne helps with casualties, "quiet and steady" and undeterred by blood, and picks up "the habits of the bush," forgoing makeup and cutting her hair short. She learns to maintain and fire an M-16.

When Mark "gently" mentions that it's time for her to go home, she says, "Everything I want ... is right here," but she may not mean him. She is changing. Less committed to the house-and-kids plan, she pulls away from Mark and begins to explore on her own, coming in late. Then one night she doesn't return.

Mark panics, assuming that Mary Anne is cheating on him. Rat checks the bunks and assures Mark that Mary Anne isn't with another soldier. They search the compound, but Mary Anne has gone out on ambush with the Greenies. She returns after dawn, hugs Mark, and says, "Please ... not a word." Mark insists on talking and insists on a "compromise." Mary Anne becomes silent; Mark says they're engaged, but their relationship seems "strained" and brittle. As Mark works on getting Mary Anne home, she falls into a "restless gloom," gazing toward the mountains with a look that is "partly terror, partly rapture." One morning she leaves with the Greenies.

Nearly three weeks later, a different Mary Anne returns with the Greenies, "a small, soft shadow among six other shadows." Mark waits outside the Greenies' hut, looking sick. When Rat and Eddie check on him, they hear strange music and a woman's voice "half singing, half chanting" coming inside. Desperate, Mark forces the door; they enter to find a candle-lit room full of "tribal music," the smells of incense, and "the stink of the kill." Animal hides and heads are draped about, and bones are stacked everywhere.

The Greenies lounge in hammocks while Mary Anne sings. "Perfectly at peace," she gazes at Mark with eyes "utterly flat and indifferent." Rat realizes that she's wearing a necklace of human tongues. She tells Mark that he doesn't belong in this "place," meaning not just the hut but "the entire war." She, on the other hand, has developed an urge to stay and immerse herself in Vietnam: she craves "eating" the country whole.

A few days later, Rat runs into Eddie, who passes on what a Greenie told him: Mary Anne took "greedy pleasure" in night patrols, running "death-wish chances." She walked barefoot in the jungle and threw away her weapon. One morning she "walked off into the mountains" and never returned. Searches turned up nothing. After an inquiry Mark was demoted and sent home. But the Greenies think that Mary Anne is still in the mountains. She has become "part of the land ... ready for the kill."

Analysis

Mary Anne is one of the few female characters in the book and the only woman who plays a central role in a story set in Vietnam. It's as if she absorbs the war and the Vietnam landscape into herself in such a way that it liberates her. Mary Anne crosses traditional gender boundaries to become more like a soldier than some of the men in the platoon. She learns to shoot, goes out with the Green Berets into the jungle for days, and sometimes wanders into the countryside alone at night. No longer tied to her boyfriend, she goes where she wants to go and does what she wants to do. While the war damages many of the soldiers emotionally, it seems to fulfill Mary Anne by pushing her beyond her boundaries. She becomes fearless, even reckless, and never returns to the United States, vanishing into Vietnam, instead, as if she had been destined to do so.

Rat's story in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is told chronologically but with frequent interruptions to discuss the manner in which Rat tells the story.

The narrator says that Vietnam is "full of strange stories" that combine the "mad and the mundane." Rat's unlikely story about a soldier's sweetheart is one of these. It's not like Rat's usual stories. He tells it without a smile, delivering even the funny details as if they are "straight tragedy." Rat also pauses now and then to "search the mountains" or close his eyes and think. What happened to Mary Anne was transformative for Rat; he has to study the story every time he tells it. Rat's "reputation for exaggeration" usually causes the narrator to "discount sixty or seventy percent" of what he says, but Rat insists that he witnessed these events and is insulted when anyone questions his story.

The story shapes Rat's understanding of the effect of the war and of the land on soldiers, including himself. He "loved" Mary Anne, as did the other soldiers, because she wasn't like the "pure and innocent" girls back home. Rat is not speaking of the girls' sexual purity but of their inability to grasp what soldiers go through in Vietnam. But Mary Anne was "up to her eyeballs" in the war, learning to use a gun and survive in the jungle. He believes a girl like her would understand how the war changes men. He tells her story half in longing for someone like her to grasp how the war has changed him.

When Rat tells a story, the narrator says, he doesn't embellish to deceive. "Just the opposite"—Rat wants to "heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot" that listeners can feel what he felt, whatever the actual facts and events. For Rat soldiers arrive in Vietnam "young and innocent, full of romantic bullshit" about heroism and patriotism. But they learn the truth of Vietnam "pretty damned quick." Curt Lemon's death was traumatic for Rat: he took out his rage and grief on the buffalo. He is also a medic, unable to look away from torn bodies. When Rat tells Mary Anne's story, its tone doesn't matter to him; its "digressions" don't bother him; rules about how a story should end don't apply. The story is ongoing, all around him, as he and others continue to be transformed by the pressures of the war and the land.

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