The Red Convertible
The Importance of Setting in A Bridge, The Red Convertible, and ‘Scales
Though most of author Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine takes place on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, the setting also reflects an over 50-year span of changes – a mix of old and new experiences. Love Medicine encompasses the lives of numerous major characters, many of whom take turns narrating their own stories within the novel. Specifically, the stories ‘A Bridge’, ‘The Red Convertible’, and ‘Scales’ utilize the setting as an important driving force for plot and character development. Additionally, the setting reflects upon the author’s own experiences as a Chippewa. In both ‘A Bridge’ and ‘The Red Convertible,’ Henry Junior’s experience during the Vietnam War is what causes the major shift in his characterization when he returns, which furthers the story as a whole. This is a very important idea, as the story is narrated in 1974, while the Vietnam War was still going on. In ‘Scales’, Gerry has undergone some evident psychological damage due to being in and out of jail – which comes down to an encounter with a cowboy that was also very time-specific. Both Gerry and Henry are interesting characters that are affected greatly by the time period their stories are set in, and both inadvertently affect the people around them – including Lyman and Albertine. Each independent story of Love Medicine has a sharp focus and a clear narrative line that reaches some resolution. The layers of understanding created by this linked-story technique is made possible by Erdrich’s incorporating the setting.
The stories ‘A Bridge’ and ‘The Red Convertible’ are a few examples of Erdrich’s extensive writing about the younger generation of her characters, specifically Albertine and Henry Jr. In ‘A Bridge’, her depiction of Albertine Johnson is particularly intriguing. Albertine represents the modern Chippewa woman faced with an undefined life whose shape she must determine (Portales 7). Both Albertine and Henry are younger characters who are facing challenges – probably representative of the author’s own development while growing up near her grandparents’ reservation. A passage from ‘A Bridge’ states, “And he saw her as the woman back there … The Asian, folded eyes of some Chippewas. She was hemorrhaging.” In the final altercation between these two characters, Henry wakes up in a panic after remembering this bayoneted woman in Vietnam and eventually weeps in front of Albertine. Not only does this tragic scene foreshadow a future psychologically-damaged Henry in the next chapter, but it alludes to the complexity of Chippewa relationships as well as the tensions they feel experiencing trauma and despair.
In ‘The Red Convertible’, the red car is a symbol for Henry’s own mental state that undergoes changes throughout the course of the story. His own experiences in the army serve to further illuminate his character, building off of the previous chapter; the reader learns that Henry was once a happy, joking brother who was close to his family. When Henry returns home, according to Lyman, he “was very different, and … the change was no good.” This new, sheltered Henry has been sculpted by his traumatizing experience in Vietnam, which has left him with PTSD-like symptoms. The red convertible fails to be a source of enthusiasm for Henry, unlike before when it served as a symbol of the brotherly bond between him and Lyman. In both this chapter and ‘A Bridge’, Erdrich manipulates time and setting to present various facets of her characters in different situations. As each new time period is introduced, the actual depth of Henry’s suffering is more apparent. Overall, this story is more family-oriented compared to others, with themes that seem to reflect Erdrich’s own background from a large family with several brothers and sisters. Erdrich chooses to delve into the history of the timely Vietnam War and its clear negative impacts on both a young Native American man who serves in the war and his sibling. In this way, she infuses her own background and familiarity of Native American oral tradition into ‘The Red Convertible’ through the character development of Henry.
Though relatively light-hearted in comparison to the other stories, ‘Scales’ is also a tale that is representative of the cultural exploitation that was actually prominent during this time. An excerpt from this passage states, “He also found that white people are good witnesses to have on your side, because they have names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and work phones. But they are terrible witnesses to have against you, almost as bad as having Indians witness for you.” Such details reveal that Gerry’s background as a Native American negatively affects him throughout the passage; it shows how difficult it Gerry for him to deal with a racially skewed justice system and limited opportunities. Thus, it is evident that Gerry has been damaged by his wrongful encounters with the justice system. This becomes even more apparent as he is anxious and sweaty in the hospital, which reminds him of a prison, and shows the psychological damage that years of incarceration have now inflicted upon him. Erdrich concludes this passage on a negative note by having Gerry ultimately sent to a high-security prison. It is implied that he and Dot will have to talk separated by a glass screen and that his daughter may grow up without ever getting to know him. Interestingly, Erdrich conveys that the justice system in which Gerry has continuously rebelled against is – in truth – vicious and merciless. Albertine’s satirical humor as she narrates ‘Scales’ provides a unique insight into Gerry’s mental state. The passage is an example of Erdrich’s alternating between passages of romance, drama, and the 1980’s “dirty realism” trend. She incorporates this by narrating themes of poverty, incarceration, and alcoholism that were prevalent amongst Native Americans during this time.
Though the novel itself follows a loose chronology, Love Medicine encompasses a series of stories in which a sense of place is very strong. This is shown through the importance of the setting in passages such as ‘The Red Convertible’, ‘A Bridge’, and ‘Scales’. The setting reveals the background of the Vietnam War, which heavily impacts the development of youthful characters such as Albertine, Henry Jr, and Lyman. Henry Junior’s drastic character development is revealed through his experiences in the war in both ‘A Bridge’ and ‘The Red Convertible’, and his trauma is the exact cause in his personality shift. This drives the story in a devastating yet almost realistic direction. In ‘Scales’, Gerry’s own mental state is damaged due to his altercations with a racially skewed justice system and very limited opportunities as a Native American. Author Louise Erdrich’s skillfully incorporates her Chippewa background into these passages to both weave the complex relationships between her characters and convey stories that also follow her own Native American oral traditions.
PTSD in The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich
“I did not ask for the things that i’ve been through, and I certainly did not ask my mind to paint and repaint the pictures in flashback form.” Although the author of this quote is unknown it sheds light on the truth about post traumatic stress disorder and shares feelings of Henry, a character in “The Red Convertible,” who also struggles with PTSD when he arrives back home. With Erdrich’s writing approach, honesty and reality, and the truth about post traumatic stress disorder, this is a very likable story as well as a great read for anyone wishing to gain a better understanding of PTSD.
To begin with, “The Red Convertible” is a short story by American-Ojibwe author, Louise Erdrich. The short narrative is a realistic, thought provoking story which starts with brothers Henry and Lyman purchasing a red convertible together. In this story Erdrich uses several different methods that can be used for creating tension. She begins the story with, “I owned that car along with my brother Henry Junior. We owned it together until his boots filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share” (417). Here she starts by hinting about what happens at the story’s end, creating intrigue for readers. This was a great use of words as little strain is happening within the next few pages. However, good imagery and action continue to make reading move quickly. Tension picks up again when Henry comes back from war; the story is soon following the Native-American family’s attempts to deal with repercussions of the Vietnam War once Henry arrives back home. When Henry returns from Vietnam he’s traumatized and distraught. Lyman tries his very best to get his brother back, even vandalizing the car which at this time seems to become a symbol that mirrored Henry’s condition. To end the story Erdrich uses careful dialogue and a powerful image when Henry drowns in the river and Lyman lets the convertible slide into the water after him.
In addition, complete honesty and many underlying thoughts continue throughout the story. “The Red Convertible” is not only a good read but also has many underlying factors such as how PTSD is felt by families of the victim, not just how the person with PTSD feels themself. This can be a refreshing difference to most stories containing PTSD. Even deeper within, underlying thoughts show relations to native americans living in modern times and how families really work. Many opinions can be formed around the story’s name itself, “The Red Convertible.” Along with the stories underlying thoughts it is also is full of utter honesty. A great example of this is simply the ending of Henry drowning. This may make a sad story to many readers, but to those who know about PTSD it is very realistic. When Lyman states “He says in a normal voice, like he just noticed and he doesn’t know what to think of it. Then he’s gone” (423). Henry had given up on his own life when just moments ago he seemed to be doing much better. A person with post traumatic stress disorder can appear perfectly fine in one moment, then the exact opposite within seconds.
Finally, not everyone has witnessed and/or understood the whole truth of how PTSD can affect a family; this story does a great job of showing the honest reality of PTSD in a family. Many stories take PTSD lightly, trying to show happy outcomes that veterans can have. Unfortunately, in reality that is not always the case. More often than not, PTSD is an awful disorder that changes families lives. Such as when Lyman states, “When he came home, though, Henry was very different, and i’ll say this: the change was no good” (419). Erdrich also shows what families have to go through. “Once I was in the room watching tv with Henry and I heard his teeth click at something. I looked over, and head bitten through his lip. Blood was going down his chin” (420). Most people may think this was simply a dramatic detail but for families living with PTSD, these become details of daily life. The Department of Veterans Affairs released its analysis of Veteran suicide data for 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. After adjusting for differences in gender and age, they found that risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among Veterans when compared to U.S. non-Veteran adults. “Unlike the physical wounds of war, these conditions remain invisible to other military members, to families, and to society around them. All three conditions affect mood, thoughts, and behavior; yet these wounds often go unrecognized and unacknowledged” (US Department of Veteran Affairs).
Erdrich’s writing approach along with the reality and truthfulness about PTSD make this story very likable as well as a great read for anyone wishing to gain a better understanding of post traumatic stress disorder.
Comparison of On the Rainy River and The Red Convertible
What does ‘On the Rainy River’ by Tim O’ Brien and ‘ The Red Convertible’ by Louise Erdrich share for all intents and purpose and what likenesses may both of the sections share for all intents and purpose? ‘On the Rainy River’ happens in Canada and is about a man who wouldn’t like to go to the Vietnam War. He winds up setting off to the war and feels disgrace, shame, and conviction. The man’s name is Tim, and he generally remained against the war and likewise he generally imagined that he ought not be battling for a war that is not his issue to worry about and not in any event, for his nation. ‘The Red Convertible’ is around two siblings that purchased an old red convertible. One of the siblings named Henry went to the war and the other sibling Lyman remained at home sitting tight for Henry’s appearance. At the point when Henry returns from the Vietnam war he is completely changed and the bond between siblings is lost and overlooked. The two stories have likenesses since in the two stories at any rate one of the characters does battle and numerous associations are made in the two stories.
‘On the Rainy River’ Tim the storyteller which is the fundamental character wouldn’t like to go to the Vietnam War. He feels some disgrace and conviction setting off to a war the he guaranteed himself that he would even escape on the off chance that it implied not contacting the war zone. He attempts to escape yet there are numerous variables that mange him and maintains a strategic distance from himself from getting away. Truth be told he imagined that getting away would make him much to a greater extent a defeatist. The proof is, ‘I gone through towns with well-known names, through the pine woods and down to the prairie, and afterward to the Vietnam War where I was a warrior, and afterward home once more. I endure however it is anything but an upbeat closure. I was a quitter. I went to the war.’ This proof expresses that he was a defeatist for setting off to the war. Despite the fact that he endure regardless he considered terrible himself.
Well both of the accounts have likenesses with the moves they make and some concealed implications in the waterways and other little subtleties. Like the stream in the two stories in any event one of the characters does battle. Getting away or recovering enthusiasm for something different can’t generally help. Like Henry attempting to recover enthusiasm for the convertible was not a good thought since he suffocated in a frosty waterway and the vehicle obliged him. The two stories have streams which symbolize that there is no beginning and no start. We don’t have the foggiest idea what happened to Lyman after his sibling and the vehicle suffocated in the frigid stream. Nor we comprehend what happened to Tim after he returned from the Vietnam war. For Tim O’ Brien the stream isolating Canada and the United States which where the waterway symbolizes opportunity on the grounds that Tim needs to get away from the war. For Lyman the waterway likewise symbolizes opportunity since when his sibling and the convertible sank in the stream he felt alleviated by the way that his changed sibling is with him any longer. He won’t live with the way that they had a bond and no it is no more.
To me ‘The Red Convertible’ and ‘On the Rainy River’ are similar in some aspects but not all of the aspects. Both of the stories seem to have a similar connection since at least one of the characters goes to the Vietnam War and comes back changed and also survived the war. Both of the story lines do not have an exact ending since it still does not talk about what will happen next.
Characteristic Of Henry Lamartine in The Red Convertible
In the short story, The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich, Henry Lamartine is a free-spirited and loving older brother. Henry and his younger brother, Lyman, buy a convertible sports car together and go jet setting across their country. Later in the story, Henry is sent off to the war in Vietnam, only to return as a depressed veteran. The once attractive scarlet car became an object of disdain. Lyman remarks, “It was at least three years before Henry came home. By then I guess the whole war was solved in the government’s mind, but for him it would keep on going” (3). Before the war, the red car had symbolized freedom that Henry and his brother had, but after the war, he felt as if he had been stripped of that freedom because of what he had experienced while in Vietnam. Whatever had happened to Henry while he was at war changed his perception of the red car from being something of pleasure to something of pain. Henry was experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This transition is explained using the psychology of color. Naz Kaya, an author and contributor to the journals, College Student Journal, Environment and Behavior, and Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, wrote an article about the relationship between color and emotions. This article focuses upon the unseen forces of color and how it affects the mental state. Kaya writes, “Color is an inseparable part of our everyday lives and its presence is evident in everything that we perceive. It is widely recognized that colors have also a strong impact on our emotions and feelings. For instance, the color red has been associated with excitement…” (1). Kaya goes on to explain that ‘excitement’ can mean contentious or fervent—negative or positive. The invisible effects of color are inescapable and depending upon our experiences and environment, they can cause favorable or disagreeable outcomes. Therefore, war veterans should be warned of the effects of color, specifically red, because of the negative effects they can have on the psyche.
After Henry Lamartine returns from war, he appears to avoid the red convertible at all costs. His brother Lyman observes, “Henry had not even looked at the car since he’d gotten home, though like I said, it was in tip-top condition and ready to drive. I thought that the car might bring the old Henry back somehow” (4). This behavior could be described as avoidance motivation. To Henry, the car had become a negative stimulus that brought out thoughts of his past. Andrew Elliot, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Madison, Wisconsin, teaches Social Psychology and Individual Differences and Achievement and Motivation courses, and has published more than 15 articles about psychology, color, and motivation, is an expert on this subject. One of his articles focuses on how the color red inhibits performance and creates the feeling of failure. He writes, “Persons encounter both explicit and subtle pairings between colors and particular messages, concepts, and experiences in particular situations … the mere perception of a color in a particular situation activates its paired associate and influences affect, cognition, and behavior accordingly” (155). To Henry, through positive repetitive contact with the convertible, red gained the feeling of freedom that he had with his brother when they traveled across the country. When he was sent to war, his perception of reality was altered. When he returned, the red car evoked negative feelings such as failure and the need for evasion. Eventually, Henry was able to overcome that and restore the old car—he had semi-returned to his former relationship with red. Later in the story, it is revealed that his experiences at war had too great of an effect upon him and he reverted back to the negative connotation with red. With more therapy and research geared toward color psychology, those like Henry could possibly be cured from their mental issues developed from war.
Henry was able to fight against avoidance motivation because of the long-term previous experiences he had with red, that is, until he succumbs to his depression at the end of the story. Lyman explains his post-war behavior, “He was so quiet and never comfortable sitting still anywhere but always up and moving around. I thought back to times we’d sat still for whole afternoons, never moving a muscle, just shifting our weight along the ground, talking to whoever sat with us, watching things” (4). Henry never completely erased his previous disposition and memories because his post-war self was constantly changing its perspective and attention. Henrik Olsson, a research scientist of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and a doctor of psychology, presents an avenue of color therapy for Henry. His article focuses on his argument and study about how mental categories should be expanded upon to more specificity because of the broad subjects each category encompasses. He explains, “Accurate visual working memory requires the preservation of attention over the retention time and fails when attention is directed to other objects” (8789). In order to retain memories visually, one must be exposed over a period of time without being interrupted with another stimulus. Should Henry have had a therapist to help him, the clinician could have used visual memory categories to aid Henry in healing. For example, using the category of colors, the doctor could present Henry with pleasure evoking, red items and allow him time to create new connections with reds and break the ties with the negative feelings. This strategy could even be used for any mental category besides color, such as shapes, sounds, and visual perceptions. Olsson writes, “To keep a purely visually represented object active in working memory requires that during retention, attention has not been directed at any other object. That is, when attention is directed to any new object belonging to the same category, the object representation in visual working memory is updated by an overwriting process” (8788). Studies show that long-term mental associations can be broken or altered by presenting a different stimulus. This can also explain how Henry’s positive association with the red convertible was modified after his experiences during the war. The author, Erdrich, does not provide information about Henry’s experiences in the war, but perhaps they were instances great enough to contrast Henry’s consciousness. Also, when combined, all of the above discussed information and articles are powerful arguments to urge researchers to look further into color psychology and performance attainment related to therapy for veterans. Such research may result in the life or death fate of soldiers returned from battle.
Family Issues in Sonny’s Blues And The Red Convertible
In “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin and “The Red Convertible,” by Louise Erdrich, both protagonists struggle to overcome certain obstacles in an attempt to understand and help their brothers with their hardships, hoping to form or rebuild a brotherly bond.
Sonny from “Sonny’s Blues” and Henry from “The Red Convertible” are both struggling with an internal conflict that resulted from a trauma they have experienced. The environment they are in may have directly or indirectly caused their struggles. The narrator and his younger brother, Sonny, from “Sonny’s Blues” are African Americans raised in Harlem, a neighborhood full of run-down housing projects, plagued with drugs and poverty. This causes Sonny’s longing to escape the confines and stereotypes of the neighborhood by struggling to find himself and his goal in life. On the ride returning home with Sonny after his release from prison, the narrator considers that maybe he or Sonny have escaped the neighborhood when he stated, “…perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years” (271). However, Sonny’s ‘escape from Harlem’ was him wounding up in prison for using and peddling heroin. After release, Sonny’s previous experiences in captivity continues to negatively affect him and he attempts to overcome the trauma by doing what he enjoys, which is music. The narrator soon comes to realize “that part of [themselves] had been left behind” (271). Although the narrator seemingly succeeded, he notices the darkness in the community and constantly struggles with his emotions, whereas Sonny, although physically left Harlem, the outcome that resulted from the occurrences there still haunts him. This shows that the narrator and Sonny have yet to really escape their dark realities. On the other hand, Lyman and his older brother, Henry, from “The Red Convertible” grew up on a Native American reservation in North Dakota. Although there are certain restrictions in their environment similar to “Sonny’s Blues”, the effect it had on them is far less prominent. However, something else that did have a significant impact on both characters is Henry’s deployment to Vietnam. Henry’s time in the military resulted in his post-traumatic stress disorder. Lyman talks about how much Henry has changed since his return, “when he came home, though, Henry was very different…Henry was jumpy and mean” (4). Henry, similar to Sonny in a way, internally dealt with all his struggles and kept to himself. He shut out the world and everyone around him, including his younger brother, Lyman, whom he used to be so close to.
Both protagonists attempt to understand their brothers and to form or rekindle a bond with them. To achieve this, both struggles to overcome their own obstacles. Earlier on in “Sonny’s Blues”, there were disagreements and altercations between the narrator and Sonny, which were caused by the narrator’s own actions and attitudes. The narrator’s initial ignorance prevented him from forming a relationship with Sonny because he did not try to understand Sonny despite worrying for Sonny’s future. The narrator also exclaimed how he “had the feeling that [he] didn’t know [Sonny] at all” (279) after their argument about Sonny’s dream of becoming a musician. On the contrary, Lyman from “The Red Convertible” has been trying to understand Henry since the start. He already had a strong brotherly bond with Henry prior to the story’s occurrences. After noticing Henry’s changes after his return from war, Lyman attempts to bring Henry back to his old self and rebuild the brotherhood they previously had. He “thought the car might bring the old Henry back somehow” (5). However, what Lyman fails to realize is that Henry is too far gone to revert back to who he was before and fails to realize the impact Henry’s experiences had on him.
Both brotherly relationships face a significant change by the end of the story where the protagonists are able to overcome their obstacles to an extent. The narrator saw the death of his daughter as a sign to finally be able to carry out his mother’s wishes to be there for Sonny. A while after Sonny’s release from prison, the narrator and Sonny from “Sonny’s Blues” managed to have a meaningful conversation. The narrator gets to hear Sonny’s music and “heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through” (293). The narrator finally comes to understand Sonny and Sonny managed to overcome his struggles and continues to face them by expressing it all in his music, something he has been hoping to do all along. He also ironically ends up saving the narrator, opening the narrator up to his inner self. And despite being “aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above [them], longer than the sky” (293), the narrator and Sonny were able to have that moment of connection. On the other hand, Henry was unable to overcome or face his trauma, with death seeming to be the only escape available. The brothers have a last moment together similar to old times, but Lyman then comes to the cruel realization that things will never go back to the way they were when Henry jumped into the Red River, let the current take him far, and said “my boots are filling…in a normal voice” (8). Lyman saves Henry by letting him go because life would no longer be the same for Henry. Similar to “Sonny’s Blues”, Henry saves Lyman in a way. Lyman was too focused on repairing their relationship and went through a lot of distress because of it. By letting himself go, Henry saves himself and gives Lyman a new start.
The protagonists, the narrator from “Sonny’s Blues” and Lyman from “The Red Convertible”, both struggles to overcome certain obstacles and tries to understand and help their brothers, Sonny and Henry respectively, in order to form or rekindle a brotherly relationship. Initially, there was some tension between the narrator and Sonny due to their different perspectives. However, the narrator later opens himself up and lets Sonny in, in an attempt to understand Sonny and form a bond with him. The brothers are able to reach a connection and mutual understanding in the end despite the fact there are probably further turmoil awaiting them. Differently, Lyman and Henry already had a strong relationship which was later harmed after Henry’s return from a traumatic experience. Lyman attempts to repair Henry and the bond they once had, but comes to realize that it was all in vain. He had no choice but to let Henry and a part of himself go, in order to save Henry from further pain, and to save himself.
Depiction Of War in The Red Convertible
On the Topic of “The Red Convertible”
Despite the romanticized glorification of war by some, reality has proven that war causes detrimental loss and the damnation of lives long beyond conflict’s physical grasp. War, beside any conceived necessity, justifiably carries connotations of supreme loss. Of course the loss of lives, often of tens or hundreds of thousands en masse, but also of much more. In her story “The Red Convertible,” author Louise Erdrich chastises war for the terrible way it causes soldiers to permanently lose not only their lives, but sight of themselves.
War does not just kill, cripple, and maim; it digs into the mind and changes people from amiable to bitter. In the first act of the story, Henry is presented as a kind, affable, and well-liked individual, but after he returns from Vietnam, he is “jumpy and mean” (4). The story’s position as invariable criticism of war can be seen through the fact that Lyman states “you could hardly expect him to change for the better” (4). Despite some people’s belief that serving one’s nation leads to the betterment of their character, this work does not acknowledge that as a possibility, stating plainly that the only potential outcome of war on Henry’s character was a negative one. The use of Henry, a character portrayed in the first act to be kindly and amiable, as a vehicle to convey the tragic degree to which this transformation occurs is an insightful and powerful one.
The emotional trauma of combat also alters the behavior of those forced to experience it. Erdrich exposes this psychological damage and the changes it causes in people by writing Henry to become violent in addition to callous. For a meaningless reason, Henry shoves his previously close brother against a wall (4). Lyman tries to rationalize this, telling himself Henry “didn’t know what he was doing” (4), but both he and the reader know that sentiment is naught but a mental placebo. Erdrich knows that needing to fight to survive imbues one with a tendency to gravitate to physical altercation to solve problems, and communicates this concept through Henry while shaming the powers that force people to live in those conditions. She writes Lyman to say that “the whole war was solved in the government’s mind, but for [Henry] it would keep on going” (3), and this conveys the degree of carelessness she implies the government has to the well-being of GI’s. While the forced participants in the war are scared for life, so long as the government feels the war is done, then that’s the extent of their interest.
This apathy is exhibited not only be the powers that begin and run the war, but also by the participants in it upon their arrival home. On top of being mentally and emotionally damaged, these poor souls are cursed with a curious lack of care about almost anything. This story showcases veteran indifference Henry failing to even notice when he has blood running down his face (4). It speaks volume when something has such a powerful effect that it causes a person not to notice or care when they’re hurt, a fundamental human evolutionary trait, and it is therefore implied that anything that could force someone into such a state is one which wields too much power.
Though youth is something of euphoria and bliss, a time in which the often dark realities of the world have either yet to emerge, or at least take a back seat to more trivial, yet enjoyable, aspects of life, there must always arise a time when this youth, this innocence, is irrevocably lost, replaced with the inevitable gravity of existence. Sometimes this is caused by natural maturation, but innocence may also be stolen, often by the horrors of war. Lyman and Henry both began the story as innocent young men, simply two brothers who saw the world as their oyster. Beyond the characters, the story itself begins as lighthearted, and is seemingly a whimsical tale of the pair’s adventures in their hot red convertible, which is used as a symbol of specifically Henry’s innocence. It is in its worst condition after his return from war, as is Henry’s emotional purity. Henry tries to recoup this almost magical innocence by fixing the car, and though he does repair the automobile, he realizes it was and empty accomplishment after he and Lyman drive down to the river. He recognizes that “It’s no use” (7) to keep trying to regain what he’s lost, and, knowing that he has forever lost his sense of innocuity, he tries to at least protect his younger brother from the same fate by giving him the car. This only ends up further affirming the concept that war takes away things that can never be taken back, however, because this attempt fails, and the car, along with both boys’ innocence, die with Henry.
Even something as seemingly permanent as physical appearance is not spared by the brutal force that is warfare. This does not refer to the also very real possibility of actual physical damage, but to the way in which the trauma of combat leaves people a near-expressionless husk of their former selves. Lyman comments on how “the shadows on [Henry’s] face are deep as holes” (6), illustrating the eerie, somewhat soulless quality of his appearance. Dropping to such a lowly state after being a strapping young man “built like a brick outhouse” (3) drives home Erdrich’s point that war’s might is too strong and damaging.
Perhaps above all else, this story is used to censure the way in which warfare causes its participants to lose the will to live. As if it weren’t already enough that combat takes the lives of tens of thousands, but even those who survive are doomed with a sense that their life is futile. It cannot be known whether Henry intended to commit suicide by entering the river, but the way he so calmly declared his “boots [were] filling” (8), without any struggle to save himself, expresses his total lack of passion to continue living. The way he said that, simply that his boots were filling, both carries a sense of depressingly humorous irony, given the fact that he is literally dying yet only comments on his boots, and acts as a metaphor for him filling with dread. Boots are mentioned rather than other footwear because of the imagery they evoke, imagery of sturdiness and strength. To say that boots are filling creates an image of hopelessness; if something so strong can be defeated, what can’t? Likening Henry to these filling boots likewise displays this bleakness, in that even such a previously well-adjusted individual as Henry can become overwhelmed, filled, with sorrow to the point of an empty lust for life. Whatever water could fill such a boot, or so to speak, would indeed have to be very dark, dense, and miserable. It is made clear through this story that conflict is at least one example of something so terrible.
Some have demanded to know what benefits, if any, warfare provides. They may be provided the answer that it protects common people and their interests, but at what cost, it must be asked? Is it truly worth it to gain a small amount of worldwide political security in exchange for the condemnation of thousands to death and dread? Evidently, Louise Erdrich thinks not, as “The Red Convertible” acts as a vehicle to criticize war for causing irreversible loss of deep, personal concepts of mental and emotional integrity.
The Native American Oral Tradition in The Red Convertible, a Book by Louise Erdrich
A red convertible has a stigma attached to it as an object of desire. It enhances the image of its owner and the “red car” carries similar meanings connected with youth, recklessness, passion, luxury and speed. However, the red convertible described in the story “The Red Convertible” is more family-oriented where the true goal is strengthening the sibling bond. Louise Erdrich came from a large family with many brothers and sisters. She chooses to delve into the history of the Vietnam War and its ravages on the mind and spirit of a Native American young man who entered the war and its negative impact on his brother and their car. The story traces the decline and separation of two heroes, Henry and Leyman, who were celebrated love and life in one period of time. The story brings to the surface Native American oral tradition seen through the eyes of author, brotherhood, the characterization of Leyman and Henry, the irony of the narrative, and self-identity.
In her novel, Louise Erdrich infuses parts of her own biography as one who shared Native American roots, and lived close the Native American Reservations in Minnesota. Erdrich was related to the Chippewa Indians, the same tribe to which her characters belong. Her parents were also instructors of Native American children. The structure of The Red Convertible is a story within a story. Story-telling is a very important tradition for Native Americans who passed down tradition and history during these occasions. “Erdrich grew up in a family of storytellers and learned very early to thus appreciate the world of possibilities invoked by the storyteller’s voice” (Stookey 1). In this short story, Lyman Lamartine is retelling the biography of the life and love for his brother, Henry. The Chippewa also has connections with the Anishinaabe Indian peoples. The narrative autobiographic style of the story is essential.
The story is told in the first person therefore the speaker is already well acquainted with the details and has had a firsthand experience with the subject. Leyman injects the story with direct quotations and speech which he remembers, at the same time, he uses prose, using his own words to build the story. The informal speech and the easy language also make known the simplicity of the speaker and the conversational tone he adopts to connect to his target audience. However, the easy and direct language is also deep in matter and subtle since Leyman speaks of a dearly departed brother and a past happier time in history.
The story “The Red Convertible” is rooted in reality, for the events that occur are credible and contain no elements which gloss over, embellish, and decorate the truth. Instead, the ugly face of reality is seen as the story unfurls from a hasty decision to buy a car, an enjoyable summer (which is told in the height of nostalgia), the impact of the Vietnam war, the call for soldiers, and post-traumatic stress, family alienation, change, a tragic accident (or an apparent suicide), and deep bereavement. The truth of the narrative is based on word of mouth; however, one can see that it is no idle tale to entertain the masses. Bitter political criticism bleeds through the story where Lyman would blame the government for letting his brother Henry go out to war and become so terribly damaged psychologically and emotionally such that he is incompetent to deal with his family and the world. Lyman accuses that “the whole war was solved in the government’s mind” (Erdrich). The suspicions of the futility of the war and the government’s underhanded support of the war were not a secret which the American public attacked. Lyman expresses “life on reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises—full of holes. It just about hurt me, I’ll tell you that!” (Erdrich). This candid commentary shows Lyman’s disillusion with the American government, the injustice and neglect of the Native American population, and the abandonment to reservations.
The red car as Henry personified Character of Henry:
The theme of identity is central to Native American narratives. “The mythical American success story still examines primarily our deepest identity as individuals using the narrative paradigm” (Reid 65). Lyman mourns the loss of a brother and the loss of the convertible-both entities one and the same. The narrator rejoices in the person his brother was during the glory days of youth. The account is told in memoriam of his brother Henry, who transitions from being a fun-loving, even-tempered young man to a jittery, unstable, and melancholy war veteran. “Henry returns home in The Red Convertible changed from once an easy-going youth to a withdrawn, tense shell of a man” (Beidler 178). The title of the story, The Red Convertible is actually “Henry” since the car becomes almost human and is destroyed when Henry dies. To solidify this point one only has to observe the connections between Henry and the red convertible. The post-war picture of Henry has “shadows on his face (as) deep as holes (Erdrich) and when Lyman vandalizes the car in order to get Henry to repair it, Lyman describes that “it looked worse than any typical Indian car—full of holes” (Erdrich). Hence the brotherly connection between Lyman and Henry becomes transferred to the car. As a war veteran, Henry has been changed to an object riddled with holes, symbolic of the holes a body would suffer because of bullets. In this case the holes are emotional ones which reveal a broken human spirit. On the other hand at the beginning of the story Lyman’s encounter with the red car was like love at first sight, “large as life. Really as if it was alive. That car (was) reposed, calm and gleaming” (Erdrich). This red car was in pristine shape just as Henry was before he entered the war – in perfect condition.
The story has Henry as the victim who suffers and goes under because of intense internal trauma. The narrative reveals, “a legacy of devastation (which) menaces Love Medicine’s characters, and some succumb. Henry Junior, for example, epitomizes those Indians …as suicidal, inarticulate, almost paralyzed in their inability to direct their energies toward resolving what seems to them an insoluble conflict” (Gleason). Henry gives up the fight by plunging in the Red River which reminds the reader of the flow of blood and the color of the car. Not only is Henry a victim but his brother as well for although he has survived his brother’s suicide, he is still hurting, “Lyman walks not out of poverty but out of despondency” (Nagel 41). The only difference between Henry and Leyman is that Leyman is able to articulate what he feels and achieves a literary catharsis. Henry is victimized by the war and its horrific scenes forever etched in his memory. He becomes invalid to society and his family, serving as “a prototype of the displaced soldier returning home…the experience of the combat destroys the sense of reality, making it difficult if not impossible to reintegrate himself back into society” (Wong 72). The ties of brotherhood are very affected so that every the relationship which is developed through the car has become shattered. Despite Lyman’s urgings Henry could never socialize or hang around with the family as he used to.
Erdrich portrays Lyman’s character as a Native American who is ambitious, lucky, spontaneous, easy-going, selfless, and who greatly loves his brother. The point of focus in Lyman’s character is his surrender of the car to Henry who he labels the sole owner ever since he died, “We owned it together until his boots filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share. Now Henry owns the whole car” (Erdrich). The move from joint ownership to non-ownership is represented by the passage of the book. Lyman’s generosity causes the value of the material possession to depreciate while holding in high esteem the worth of his brother Henry and their relationship. What he does when the truth hits home that his brother has died is vital in the Native American tradition where “Lyman’s driving the car into the river represents the custom of burying a dead person’s private possessions along with him” (Wong 74). Ultimately this act is a rebuttal when the siblings were fighting over who should possess the car. Lyman refuses the car because the prime source of his happiness came from seeing his brother happy, and since his brother has perished, the meaning of the car has sunk into meaninglessness. The next important feature is that Lyman places his brother Henry as the elder of the two at the beginning of the story, although in reality, Lyman is the elder. This age reversal only shows the deference and respect for his brother that Lyman thinks he deserves. Lyman abuses the car terribly in a desperate attempt to recover his brother whom he had lost during the war. As if knowing that death was near, Lyman shakes his brother shouting, “Wake up, Wake up, Wake up…(Henry’s) face was totally white and hard (Erdrich). Lyman’s primary role in the story after the war is to initiate the process of resuscitation and recovery since his brother has lost his true self to the Vietnam War. It can be argued that Henry was already dead since what returned after the war was only a shell of the once energetic and light-hearted young man. Lyman tries to salvage what remains of their relationship by going out on a trip with Henry and by giving him the car, in hopes that it would contribute to some meaningful purpose in life.
Lyman’s ambition is also a quality which he speaks about with pride. He prefaces the story with the fact that he was the first to ever own a convertible on the Native American reservation. Native Americans are typically poor and insolvent. Lyman reveals this fact since when he was young he was good at earning money. The car is a memorial of his achievement at the restaurant which ended unfortunately by a natural disaster for he spends most of his money on purchasing the car. He makes the boast that “I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation” (Erdrich). His business acumen was noticed by those around him. He gives the reader a list of his former jobs shoe-shiner, flower vendor, dishwasher, busboy, cook, assistant manager, manager, co-owner, and owner, a self-made success. The upward social movement and success set Lyman apart from his brother and his native society. The car becomes identified with his success in American society since “the car is very clearly an artifact of the industrial world,…and it signifies that the children of Lulu are moving rapidly in the international world….the car is an expression of modernity in the white world and an emblem of pride for the boys” (Nagel 42). The poverty of the Native Americans is clearly outlined in their earlier years. The odd jobs serve to earn income to provide for the needs of the family.
The irony of the story that the very convertible through which Lyman hopes to bond with his brother is the very instrument that precipitates separation and demise. With hopes that the car would help heal Henry and his shattered self, the car becomes one of the main reasons why the brothers disagree. Before Henry leaves for war (as if not expecting to return), Henry gives up his rights to the car and gives Lyman his keys. However, Lyman objects and proposes that he would keep the car safe until his brother returns from the Vietnam War. The ironic and climactic fight near the river is over the issue of ownership of the car which Henry’s death ironically solves. Lyman chooses to renounce all right to having another car so that the red convertible becomes the first and last car that he ever owns. Walking from place to place is his preferred way to travel because it would mean replacing his brother somehow.
In conclusion, the story “The Red Convertible” is one which conveys a message of grief, and despair because of unwelcome change. Leyman chooses to continue the memory of his brother Henry, making him come alive in the story. What was once a representative of social triumph becomes an unforgettable and tragic model of an ill-fated brother, unable to come to terms with the cruelty of war and cannot reconcile the civilized, pacific world with the war torn world of the soldiers and veterans.
Sympathetic Characters in The Red Convertible by Love Medicine and Everyday Use by Alice Walker
In The Red Convertible, I found that Lyman was the more sympathetic character. Throughout the story, we see him doing things for his brother and trying to make his brother “come back” to him. This is especially shown the author puts a lot of time into talking about Lyman fixing the car and making the car look nice again. The amount of work Lyman put in was to be sacrificed in order to try and help his brother, Henry. If Lyman weren’t sympathetic for his brother’s feelings of being lost, he wouldn’t have done something so drastic.
In Henry’s defense, it is hard for him to be sympathetic. He had just been in Vietnam (as a Marine, if I may add). It more than likely took a huge toll on him, which is why he is so distant and different from the Henry that Lyman knew. You do see more of a sympathetic Henry at times (when he offers the ride, when he jokes around about fixing it, etc.) because he is trying to repair the relationship with his brother that he knows is no longer the same. Ultimately, though, Lyman is the more sympathetic one in this story.
In Everyday Use, I find Maggie to be the more sympathetic character. My case isn’t so much for the fact that Maggie is more sympathetic, but rather the fact that I find Dee less sympathetic than her. Dee seems kind of arrogant and self –centered. Sure, there were other quilts, but she wanted the specific ones that belonged to Maggie. Maggie, on the other hand, seems more relaxed and calm than Dee; she isn’t always engaging and making trouble.
Dee, being Dee, seems very entitled. She keeps asking her mother for things like the head of the butter churner, the dasher, and the quilts that belong to Maggie. I can understand why she may be asking for this, though. She wants all of these things for the same reason she is excited to see the benches, and that is because she wants to feel more connected to her family now that her life is different.