Tim O’Brien. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.
If anyone has read the story “On the Rainy River” from O’Brien’s collection The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods bookends that story. “Rainy River” begins O’Brien’s Vietnam saga, and In the Lake of the Woods apparently ends it. At first it does not appear to be another war story like the works O’Brien is justly best known for like If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried.
John Wade and his wife Kathy are staying in cabin in a remote area of Minnesota lake country. We find out that Wade, still a young 38 and the Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, has just lost a party primary for the U. S. Senate. The couple understandably want to get away for a while and re-connect and think things through.
Much of In the Lake of the Woods is flashback. At first the flashbacks tell of how the pair met in college and how they fell in love. We also find out John Wade’s father committed suicide when John was twelve and that as a boy his hobby was sleight of hand. By the time he was in high school he was putting on magic shows.
We also learn that he was drafted into the army out of college and went to Vietnam in 1968. At first the reminiscences about Vietnam mostly have to do with how he was trying to maintain a long distance relationship with Kathy, writing letters while she was finishing her studies. He used to do magic tricks to entertain his comrades in his platoon, so he got known by the nickname Sorcerer. Indeed, it seemed that soon everyone forgot his real name.
Although a few of the flashbacks are a little jarring, they are not too unusual. He does think about something that happened at Thuan Yen, and then about a third of the way through the novel the book mentions that his platoon leader was a Lt. Calley. That, of course, is not a fictional name. About two thirds of the way through the novel we learn that Thuan Yen became known to the outside world as My Lai.
So even though most of the story is set in 1980’s Minnesota back country, the Vietnam War still figures. One of the more interesting characters in the novel is Tony Carbo, Wade’s campaign manager and longtime political operative. Several times he asks if Wade has any skeletons in his closet so they can bring them out and minimize them before the campaign heats up. Wade says that he cannot think of anything.
Needless to say, his primary opponent has someone look into Wade’s background, including his service record, and discovers that he was involved in some way with the My Lai massacre. Wade had been seen as a shoo-in in the primary, but after that revelation his reputation and poll numbers tanked.
It is safe to say that In the Lake of the Woods is a study of PTSD—after a failed election on top of suppressed war memories and a father’s suicide. Still, the main story is a mystery.
One morning John Wade wakes up (it is nearly noon, he had been drinking the night before) and Kathy is gone. At first, he does not think much of it. An athlete in college, she still likes to jog or take walks. He figures she just was taking a walk—it was a few miles to the first general store. When she has not returned by dark, he gets worried. The next day the search begins.
For three weeks the search is quite extensive: sheriff’s department, volunteers, airplanes, with park rangers and border patrol from both the United States and Canada. No trace of her is found. A boat owned by the cabin owner is missing, so they think that she took off and got lost in the maze of waterways along the Minnesota-Canada border.
Wade himself becomes a suspect, and some people call for a search of the cabin and the property around it. Still, nothing is found.
The style of In the Lake of the Woods is reminiscent of Going After Cacciato, but there is not exactly any magical realism. Since Wade is a magician, perhaps O’Brien is making a little fun of the genre. There are a number of chapters entitle “Evidence” which include brief testimonies by Wade’s friends and family members, statements by political figures who knew the Wades, quotations from a variety of books on history and psychology, and observations by locals involved in the search.
There are also a few chapters named “Hypothesis” in which possible explanations for some of John’s and Kathy’s behaviors are explored. Perhaps Kathy just needed to get away and got lost. Perhaps John really killed her in a bloodless manner and sunk her in the boat. Will we ever know?
Ultimately, In the Lake of the Woods may well be the last of O’Brien’s Vietnam tales—even though the war is only on the novel’s periphery. The Rainy River flows out of the Lake of the Woods in real geography. With O’Brien it goes the other way. And at its core, O’Brien perhaps expresses his own views more clearly. He is no longer hiding as he was in the works mentioned earlier. And his views are existential:
But who will ever know? It’s all hypothesis, beginning to end. (300)
The title itself may give us a hint. It is not On the Lake or By the Lake or At the Lake but In the Lake. As Polonius put it: “By indirections, find directions out.” (Hamlet 2.1.66)