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In the Lake of the Woods

Tim O’Brien is one of the great storytellers of our time.  In his novel “In the Lake of the Woods”, O’Brien depicts the character of John Wade as one of the reprehensible contributors to the violence in the My Lai massacre.  John Wade illustrates what guilt and secrets can do to a man over time, and the weighing on the soul that the past does when one attempts to forget atrocities of inhumanity.  John Wade’s guilt for his participation in My Lai shows up in his marriage, politics, career and it eventually takes over his life.  O’Brien attempts to illustrate that secrets, guilt, and deceit, and how it “corrodes and corrupts”.

In the Lake of the Woods

O’Brien gives little actual facts in the story about John Wade but what we do know is that he served in the Army and served under Lieutenant William Calley, the commander that ordered the killing at My Lai.  After the war, John Wade embarks on a political career that is destroyed by the news that he participated in the murders at My Lai.  O’Brien’s intent in recounted the incident is to remind Americans of what happened at My Lai.  O’Brien uses John Wade as a vehicle to assert that secrets and lies of the incident need not be covered up and America should be “big enough” to handle the truth of the horrors there.  However, O’Brien asserts that it is natural for man to cover up what he is ashamed of: “One way or another, it seems, we all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into the graying shadows”.  This is not forgiveness, rather an attempt to explain why men like John Wade exist. 

John Wade was a man who knew what he wanted.  His existence was shaped entirely by the war and thus the outcome of his life would be shaped by the ambiguity of the Vietnam War.  His personality, since it was shaped by Vietnam, was one filled with secrets, guilt, loss, and the desire to make sense out of the senseless.  If Wade had not been defined by the war, he may have escaped the questioning and the scrutiny he placed his soul under, but that was not the case. 

As a soldier reaches into the depths of his mind to carry himself away from the battlefield, so also did John Wade create an imaginative life for himself after the war.  He reverted to tricks of the mind whenever difficult situations arose.  As Wade comments, “The mirror made things better”.  Wade is speaking of the mirror world in which, as a boy, he stood in front of the mirror doing magic tricks to get them perfectly right; and the world in which he attempts to talk with his dead father during the war.

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