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Tim O’Brien: In the Lake of the Woods

O’Brien is back to Vietnam territory with his novel. Though it is set in the United States, it concerns Vietnam and, in particular, the My Lai massacre. John Wade is a successful politician who had served in Vietnam.. He had been Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota and is now running for governor. However, during the Democratic primary, his opponent reveals that Wade was present at the My Lai massacre and Wade is soundly beaten. He and his wife, Kathy, retreat to Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. One morning, Kathy disappears. His neighbours, family and the police are suspicious of Wade, particularly as he seems calm and does not get involved in the search. When Kathy is not found and the search is called off, Wade too disappears.

The book tells Wade’s story up to the present time, including the suicide of his father when he was fourteen and, of course, his involvement in the My Lai massacre, where he kills two people. O’Brien also has several chapters entitled Evidence, where he looks at the documentary evidence concerning My Lai, including the testimony of Lieutenant Calley and others, as well as other documents. He also has several chapters entitled Hypothesis, where he explores possible reasons for the disappearances of the Wades, though we never learn the truth. Indeed, O’Brien leaves it to us to determine the reasons. Did she have a lover? Was she simply scared of her husband when she found out that he was a killer? Did she take a boat out and drown? Did she just want a new start?

O’Brien looks clearly at what can make a man behave the way the killers did at My Lai. He himself visited the village a year later and has admitted to the feelings of anger Calley and others showed. But he also shows how it has affected Wade and how his anger comes out again, after he and Kathy go off to the Lake of the Woods. But he is not going to give us any easy answers, as there aren’t any. His best book after Going After Cacciato.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Houghton Mifflin