Wednesday, November 13, 2019
November 13, 2019: Veteran’s Week: “The Red Convertible”
[In honor of Veterans’ Day, a series on cultural and historical engagements with this important American community. Please share your suggestions for veterans’ texts and contexts for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the powerful story that embodies, but also challenges, one of the most widely understood aspects of veterans’ experiences.
Some of the more challenging kinds of topics to AmericanStudy are those for which we already have a pretty good collective understanding—not ones where there are widely shared but inaccurate narratives, but rather ones where we seem, by and large, to get it right. In that case, after all, it would be fair to ask what a public scholar has to add to the conversation. One such collectively shared understanding, it seems to me, has to do with the widespread prevalence of PTSD and similar illnesses and conditions among veterans—we’ve been talking collectively about related questions and issues since at least World War I and “shell shock,” and have since Vietnam become increasingly aware of just how significant an issue this illness comprises for all of our men and women who return home from wartime military service.
Just because we’re generally aware of an issue, though, doesn’t mean that we’re fully engaged with its histories and stories, with questions like how it impacts individuals and communities. There are lots of ways to increase that kind of engagement, but I know of few that are more effective than encountering works of art that can humanize these broader historical issues; and thus I can think of few more salient AmericanStudies efforts than highlighting such works of art. When it comes to PTSD and war veterans, I don’t know of any artistic work that more concisely and powerfully captures those histories than Louise Erdrich’s short story “The Red Convertible” (1984, first on its own and then as part of her wonderful short story cycle Love Medicine). Through her depiction of two brothers, one (Henry Lamartine Jr.) a Vietnam vet dealing with PTSD and the other (Lyman Lamartine) narrating both Henry’s story and its effects on his family and community, Erdrich brings veterans’ PTSD home in literal, metaphorical, tragic, and deeply affecting ways.
If reading Erdrich’s story thus helps us embody this broader historical issue, it also definitely challenges, or at least complicates, our widely shared understanding of that issue. For one thing, the Lamartine brothers, like most of Erdrich’s characters and Erdrich herself, are part of the Ojibwe Chippewa (Native American) tribe and community, and her story thus forces us to grapple with the hugely disproportianate percentage of Native Americans who have served in our country’s wars (and thus been affected by issues such as PTSD). And as a result, Erdrich’s story also reminds us that PTSD, like any illness and especially any psychological illness, varies widely and crucially depending on a range of other factors, many connected directly to the particular community and environment surrounding the affected person. So a broad understanding of veterans and PTSD, while a good starting point, requires a good deal more engagement and analysis, and Erdrich’s story can help us carry that work forward on multiple levels.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other texts or images you’d share for the weekend post?