Joseph Flora, a university professor, once included Shane in a course he conducted on American literature. He found the student’s aversion to the character of Shane interesting, and rationalized it with this statement: “At century’s end, in post-Vietnam America, believing in Shane’s kind of heroism and selflessness is hard, as is believing in a character that can make the kind of difference Shane made” (Flora 51). It’s true that after the cultural upheaval of the Vietnam Era, many people lost faith in traditional heroes, seeing them as unrealistically good and/or honest.
People came to focus on the imperfections of others, rather than the perfection of their intentions. John Wade, the main character of O’Brien’s in In the Lake of the Woods, is a clear example of this lost integrity. Even though it’s hard to think of John as perfectly good at any point in his life, the scars of the Vietnam War and, more specifically, the memories of the massacre at Mai Lai, changed the course of his life. But it wasn’t just the fact that John was in the war that caused these changes. Many men returned from Vietnam and maintained good lives, supportive families, and relatively good mental health. “Vietnam veterans are as successful as or more successful than men their own age who did not go to war. Disproportionate numbers of Vietnam veterans serve in Congress, for instance…Al Gore is a Vietnam veteran, as is enormously popular Colin Powell. 85% of Vietnam Veterans made successful transitions to civilian life” (Fact vs. Fiction).
What was it about John Wade that separated him from other veterans? It is true that he witnessed atrocities not experienced by your average soldier. However, many who fought in Vietnam witnessed horrible deaths and untold levels of violence and destruction. The main difference, the single act that seals John Wade’s future destruction is this: “…[John] locked himself in the office, took out the battalion muster roll, hesitated briefly and then slipped it into his typewriter…Over the next two hours he made the necessary changes, mostly retyping, some scissors work, removing his name from each document” (O’Brien 269). Not only did John forge documents to make it seem like he was nowhere near Mai Lai at the time of the massacre, the act of making his involvement disappear “…helped ease the guilt. [Gave him] A nice buoyant feeling” and was his own way of reassuring himself that, “Over time…memory itself would be erased” (O’Brien 269).
If John had not committed this deception, if he had only come clean, to the military, to himself, and most importantly of all, to the woman he loved, the events documented in the novel would not have occurred. John Wade could have turned the massacre and his honesty about it into political leverage, winning him the election; his wife would have been able to connect with him, to help him through his pain; she would have understood his nightmares, and whatever occurred that night causing her disappearance would not have happened. John Wade’s life could have been complete again. He could have been whole. But in running from his past, in denying and covering up the effects it had on him, he gave it the opportunity to rise again with a vengeance and destroy everything he had built.
Both Shane and John Wade have violent, bloody pasts. Both have killed, innocent and guilty people alike, with little discrimination. What is it that allows one man to become an iconic hero and the other a tragic creature? It all comes down to honesty; if not public honesty, then at the very least honesty to one’s self. The two novels discussed here send a clear message to readers about accepting personal demons. The only way a person can move forward is not by forgetting their past, but by remembering what they have done, good or bad, and deciding how they can use those experiences to better their life, and the lives of others, in the present.
Flora, Joseph M. Journal of American Culture. “Shane (novel and film) at century’s end”. Bowling Green: Spring 1996. Vol. 19, Is. 1, p. 51 (5 pp.)
O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
“Vietnam and All Veterans of Florida.” Fact vs. Fiction: The Vietnam Veteran. Vietnam and All Veterans of Florida. 26 Mar 2008 <http://www.vvof.org/factsvnv.htm>.
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