In CountryBobbie An Mason
For Further Study
In Country was the first novel that Bobbie Ann Mason had published. Until just a few years earlier, she had been an unknown college teacher. Her first book of fiction, Shiloh, and Other Stories, was a great critical success. The short story collection earned nominations for the National Book Critics Circle award, the American Book Award, and the P.E.N./Faulkner Award for fiction. Critics and readers awaited the publication of In Country with much anticipation.
The book, which takes place in western Kentucky, concerns a teenage girl's questions about the war in Vietnam, where her father died and her uncle served. Unlike many serious works of literature, which generally avoid current events because they will soon be outdated, the novel has constant cultural references that were fresh when it was published in 1984. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for instance, which is central to the story, had been dedicated as recently as 1982, and the Bruce Springsteen album that is quoted in the epigram and mentioned frequently thereafter was released in 1984.
In addition to the timely cultural references, the characters that Mason presented also helped her gain a broader audience than many novelists enjoy. These characters do not have their interests and sensibilities formed by reading literature, but, like most Americans, they know life through the references that the consumer culture has given them. McDonald's, Holiday Inn and the shopping mall are all not just abstract, but significant pieces of their lives. InCountry, like most of Bobbie Ann Mason's works, succeeds in using the mundane aspects of modern life in a search for greater meaning.
Bobbie Ann Mason was born in 1940 in Mayfield, a small town in western Kentucky, and she grew up outside of the town's limits, attending a rural school like Sam's father did in In Country. In 1962 Mason graduated from the University of Kentucky with her Bachelor of Arts degree. She then went to New York for a year, writing for fan magazines, such as Movie Star, Movie Life, and T.V. Star Parade before returning to school for postgraduate work. In 1966 she received her Master of Arts degree from the State University of New York, and in 1972 she was awarded a Ph.D. from University of Connecticut. Her doctoral thesis, Nabokov's Garden: A Guide to Ada, was published as a book in 1974, and The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and Their Sisters was published in 1975.
During the late 1970s, while teaching journalism at Mansfield State College in Pennsylvania, Mason began writing short stories, developing her unique style from her observations of life. Looking back, she has expressed amusement at the arrogance that led her to send the second story she wrote to The New Yorker, arguably the most prestigious magazine that a writer could be published in. The polite rejection they sent her led Mason to submit another story, then another, until the magazine finally printed her twentieth submission in 1980. Other magazines printed her works, and in 1982, sixteen of her stories were collected in Shiloh, and Other Stories, which won rave reviews and was awarded the 1983 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award, as well as being nominated for several other national prizes. In Country, her first novel, was published in 1985. She has published several novels, such as Spence + Lila and Feather Crowns, and a short story collection, Love Life. She currently lives in Kentucky.
Bobbie Ann Mason's novel In Country is the story of Samantha Hughes, known as Sam, and her quest to uncover the truth of the Vietnam War. For seventeen-year-old Sam, the war has particular significance: her father died in Vietnam shortly before her own birth.
The novel is divided into three parts; the first and last parts, written in present tense, frame the middle of the novel, told in a long flashback. As the story opens, Sam, Sam's maternal uncle, Emmett, a Vietnam War veteran, and Sam's paternal grandmother, Mawmaw, are driving from their home in Kentucky to Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. There is the suggestion that some crisis, reached about two weeks earlier, precipitated the cross-country trip.
In the second part of the story, the novel slips into past tense and recounts the events of the summer immediately before the trip to the Wall. We learn background information about Dwayne, Sam's father, and about Emmett's return from Vietnam. We also learn about Irene, Sam's mother, and her response to Dwayne's death. Irene has since remarried, has a new baby, and now lives in Lexington.
Sam lives with Emmett. Sam, just graduated from high school, has a boyfriend named Lonnie. She does not know what she wants out of life. Emmett, who is unemployed and who has not worked since his return from Vietnam, cooks for the pair and spends his days trying to shore up the sagging foundation of their house. The two watch a lot of M.A.S.H. on television, and although Sam knows that the television show is about the Korean War, it starts her thinking about the Vietnam War, and about her father.
Sam is worried about Emmett who suffers from acne, headaches, and stomach disorders. She is convinced that he has been poisoned from Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War. At the same time, Sam finds herself increasingly interested in the Vietnam War. She wants to understand Emmett and she wants to know more about her father. Consequently, she begins spending time with Emmett's friends, a group of veterans who breakfast at McDonald's everyday.
Sam also worries about her future. She talks about her plans with her only girl friend, Dawn. When Dawn tells Sam that she is pregnant, Sam confronts her own situation. Although everyone assumes that she will marry Lonnie in the fall, she is not sure that this is the future she wants.
Meanwhile, the veterans plan a dance and Sam persuades Emmett to go. His old girlfriend, Anita, will be there and Sam wants to see them reunited. In addition, Sam has discovered that she is strongly attracted to one of Emmett's friends, Tom. Tom owns a garage, and has a VW Beetle Sam wants to buy.
At the dance, Sam and Tom spend the evening together and then return to Tom's apartment. Although they attempt to have sexual intercourse, Tom is impotent. Tom blames his impotence on the psychological damage inflicted by the war. Although Sam still desires Tom, he is mortified over his inability to have sex.
When Sam returns home she discovers Emmett has not returned from the dance. Three days later, Irene brings Emmett home. He showed up at her house in Lexington, drunk after the dance.
During Irene's visit, Sam asks her for more information about Dwayne. Irene suggests that she talk to her paternal grandparents and tells her that there may be a notebook there that Dwayne left. She also tells Sam that there are letters from Dwayne somewhere in Sam and Emmett's house. Before she leaves, Irene gives Sam the money to buy the Beetle.
After Irene leaves, Sam finds her father's letters and reads them. They do not provide the answers she needs and she grows increasingly confused over what she wants from life. Consequently, she breaks off her relationship with Lonnie.
Sam next visits her paternal grandparents who show her pictures of Dwayne. In addition, they also give Dwayne's diary to Sam. When Sam reads the diary and his account of finding a rotting Vietnamese corpse, Dwayne's life in Vietnam suddenly becomes real to her.
At the heart of Sam's distress is her understanding that both her father and Emmett had killed people. Worse, she also understands that her father thought of the people he killed as "gooks," not even really human. She decides that the only way she will understand how this happened is if she can somehow recreate the Vietnam War for herself. Thus, she loads up her car with camping goods and heads out to Cawood Pond, a swampy, dangerous location in the country.
Sam spends the night at Cawood Pond, immersing herself in smells, and noises of the thick swamp. In the dark, she thinks of her pregnant friend Dawn and then imagines the way soldiers kill babies. Disoriented and frightened, Sam survives the night only to hear someone approaching her in the morning. Hurriedly, Sam tries to fashion a weapon out of a can of smoked oysters, thinking she might be approached by a rapist.
However, it is not a rapist who approaches Sam, but Emmett, worried and looking for her. In the confrontation that follows, Emmett finally tells Sam what it was like for him in Vietnam. He weeps, and confesses how much he loves Sam, how he has tried to be a father to her, and how he has failed.
After the return from Cawood's Pond, Sam suffers from what she thinks of as "post-Vietnam stress syndrome," and seems to be unable to take any action at all. Emmett, however, suddenly seems to find direction. He announces that they are going to Washington, D.C., to see the Vietnam Veteran's War Memorial, and he persuades Dwayne's mother to go with them. The novel shifts back into present tense as the trio drive through Maryland into Washington.
When they reach the Wall, Emmett finds Dwayne's name in the directory and they approach the panel where his name is placed. Dwayne's name, on panel 9E is far above their heads. Sam gets a ladder from a workman, and they persuade Mawmaw to climb the ladder and touch Dwayne's name.
Sam, too, climbs the ladder and touches her father's name. She then goes back to the directory and looks up her father's name once again. Suddenly, she finds what she thinks is her own name: Sam Hughes. She rushes to panel 14E, and locates the name:
SAM A. HUGHES. It is the first on a line. It is down low enough to touch. She touches her own name. How odd it feels, as though all the names in America have been used to decorate this wall.
As the novel closes, the final scene is of Emmett, sitting "cross-legged in front of the wall, and slowly his face bursts into a smile like flames."
The sister of Sam's father, she was just a child when Dwayne was killed in the war, and consequently she never knew him. Donna and her husband live with Mawmaw and Pap Hughes.
Dawn is Sam's age, her best friend, the person most like her in the novel. Together, they do things that teenaged girls do, such as piercing each other's ears, shopping at the mall, and dreaming about leaving their small town and becoming famous in music videos. When Dawn finds out that she is pregnant, though, Sam begins to worry about the approach of adulthood: she foresees Dawn marrying her boyfriend and giving up her dreams to stay at home in a cheap apartment and raise the baby. It is not a situation that Sam wants to relate to herself.
One of the veterans that Emmett hangs around with in Hopewell, Tom is tall and handsome, and Sam has a crush on him. When the car that she bought from him shows problems, she is defensive, saying that Tom assured her that it would run fine. She goes to Tom's apartment after the dance, but he is unable to perform sexually, a problem that he explains is due to the mental distress lingering from his experience in Vietnam. When Tom mentions a prosthetic pump for achieving erections that he has seen on the television, Sam, with youthful enthusiasm, becomes certain that it would be the answer to his problem, and she blames the Veterans Administration for failing to give Tom $10,000 to buy one.
See Irene Joiner
The mother of Sam's father, Dwayne, she has never been away from home in her life before the trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that Sam and Emmett take her on. Because she is not accustomed to travel, she is a nuisance on the trip, complaining about how much things cost and unable to sit in the car for any length of time without using the bathroom. At the Memorial, though, her sadness and determination are touching.
Sam's grandfather on her father's side, she does not know very much about him because, after her father's death, her mother took her infrequently to their house.
The protagonist of this book, Sam is obsessed with the war in Vietnam, where her father died before she was even born and her uncle Emmett served. As Emmett tells his friends, "Sam's got Nam on the brain." She recently graduated from high school and the options available to her reflect the divisions in her life. Her mother, Irene, wants her to attend the University of Kentucky, which would mean moving to Lexington and living with Irene and her husband and their infant daughter. Sam is reluctant to go, and is instead considering attending Murray State in nearby Paducah, which would allow her to stay home with Emmett and watch over him.
Part of her interest in the Vietnam War manifests itself in her feelings of responsibility for Emmett; she fears that his problems, from acne and headaches and gas to an inactive love life, are the results of exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used during the war. She tries to get Emmett to tell her about the war, but he cannot describe what it was like, so she has to gather information about it from books about Vietnam and information about war in general from the television series M*A*S*H. Sam takes an interest in the small group of veterans that Emmett eats breakfast with at McDonald's every morning. She has a romantic crush on Tom Hudson, who sells her a car and who reminds her of Bruce Springsteen. The one night they spend together, Tom is unable to perform sexually, which he explains as a psychological problem caused by the war.
Much of Sam's interest in the war relates to her curiosity about the father she never knew. Her grandparents are simple country people who believe that their son never drank or smoked, but his diary from the war makes it clear that he did, so they prove to be a poor source of information. Sam's mother appears to have been deeply in love with him before he went to war, but they were just teenagers then and had only been married for a few weeks, so she has a hard time remembering any insightful information. Near the end of the book, Sam, upset with the image of her father that she has gotten from his diary and addled by a heavy concentration of flea poison, takes her camping gear and spends the night alone in a swamp, imagining what it was like in the jungles of Vietnam. When Emmett comes to find her, he is cured of his emotional paralysis and she is freed of having to be his protector, and the next day they set off on the trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that starts and ends the book.
Sam's mother has disassociated herself from life in Hopewell, having moved to a different part of the state and started a new family, which includes a new baby daughter, Heather, who she can give more attention to than she was ever able to give Sam.
The early impression of Irene in the book is that she is a newly rich person who has run away from her roots because they embarrass her. As the story progresses it becomes clear that she has lived a difficult life, responsible for a baby when she was barely more than a child herself and then adding responsibility for her brother, who had been traumatized by the war. Irene bought the house in Hopewell with the insurance money she received after Sam's father, Dwayne, died, and when Emmett came back from the war he moved in with them. For a brief time, when Sam was a few years old, she ran off to Lexington with a hippie named Bob, but she returned to Hopewell because she felt that he could not be relied on to make a living.
After thirteen years of watching over Sam and Emmett, she met Larry Joiner and married him, giving Sam the choice of going to Lexington with them or staying in school in Hopewell and living with Emmett. Irene is delighted with her new baby, to such an extent that she talks baby talk and is lighthearted about bodily functions that Sam finds disgusting. In the end, it is apparent that leaving Hopewell is Irene's way of trying to recapture some of the life she had lost by becoming widowed young. The fact that she is successful in putting her difficulties behind her is reflected in the way that Emmett tells Sam, somewhat sarcastically, "Your mother is full of the joy of life."
Sam believes that her mother's new husband has "no personality," possibly because he provides his wife and child with the sort of stable environment that nobody she knows has ever had. She refers to him as "Lorenzo Jones" because a teacher in high school played the class an old radio drama by that name, and she sees Irene's life with him as being like a soap opera, melodramatic and lacking substance.
See Larry Joiner
- In Country was adapted to a movie in 1989, currently available on videotape. Starring Bruce Willis and Emily Lloyd. Directed by Norman Jewison. Warner Brothers.
- Bobbie Ann Mason interview with Kay Bonetti. Audio cassette available from American Audio Prose Library, 1985.
- Signiture: Contemporary Southern Writers. Program 1: Bobbie Ann Mason. Video recording by Kentucky Educational Television. Annenburg/CPB Multimedia Collection, 1995.
Sam's boyfriend at the beginning of the book, she finds herself increasingly disinterested in Lonnie as the story progresses. Part of her loss of interest is her growing infatuation with Tom, the older veteran, but much of it has to do with the fact that she does not feel that she fits into Lonnie's life. He is unable to understand her concern about what happened in Vietnam. He comes from a well-adjusted family that is supportive of one another and socially acceptable, and Sam feels outclassed by them, which is symbolized by the fact that they expect her to buy a nice gift for the upcoming wedding of Lonnie's brother. For a long time in the middle of the novel, Sam does not see Lonnie because he is out of town for several days at a bachelor party. By the time he returns, Sam has spent the night with Tom and thought more about serious matters that Lonnie would not understand. He comes back with a plan for what he wants to do with his life: he wants to study camera repair through a correspondence course and open a shop. As an example of his immaturity, his response to the news of Dawn's pregnancy is "Hey! I knew she'd marry Ken somehow." Lonnie is confused and angry when, later in the same scene, Sam says that she does not want to date him any more.
Buddy never actually appears in the book, but the other veterans talk about him. In contrast to the way that Sam sees symptoms of Agent Orange poisoning in everything that is wrong with Emmett, Buddy actually does appear to have been affected by the poison. Among his symptoms are "nausea, the runs, jaundice, chloracne. His muscles twitch and he can't sleep and he's lost weight … His kid's being operated on down in Memphis. They're going to reroute her intestines to keep 'em from twisting so bad."
Sam's uncle is thirty-five years old and is barely able to function in society because of the trauma he suffered in Vietnam during the war. He is unable to hold a steady job and maintain a steady relationship. Although he has the presence of mind to joke about these as if their absence in his life is intentional, readers can tell from his financial problems and the book's positive portrayal of Anita, the former girlfriend who likes him, that Emmett is constrained by psychological problems.
He is a creature of habit, repeating simple actions and concentrating on simple tasks, such as meeting his friends for breakfast every day, making supper, worrying about fleas on his cat and digging a trench beside the house to stop up a hole that is letting water into the basement. "We're lucky this house is standing," he says at one point, prophetically. "You take a structural weakness. One thing leads to another, and then it all falls apart."
When he first returned from Vietnam, Emmett went traveling around the west, and when he returned he brought a van full of anti-war activists with him. They scandalized the town, first by being hippies in a conservative rural town and then by climbing up in the clock tower and flying a Viet Cong flag from it. He moved in with Irene and Sam, and Irene watched over him until her new husband was given a job in Lexington, 240 miles away. When she moved, Sam, by then a teenager, became responsible for Emmett. His eccentric behavior (such as deciding to wear a skirt instead of pants) makes him the subject of rumors in Hopewell.
The only thing Emmett really enjoys is bird watching, and in particular watching out for an egret, because he thinks that is the bird he saw in Vietnam. At the end of the novel, when he is finally able to talk about what the experience of war has done to him, Emmett explains the significance of bird watching to Sam: "If you can think about something like birds," he says, "you can get outside of yourself, and it doesn't hurt as much. That's the whole idea. That's the whole challenge for the human race." The fact that Emmett's psychological suffering is greatly healed is evident in the last sentence of the book, where the bird symbol becomes an image of the Phoenix, a mythical bird that arises from its own ashes: "He is sitting there cross-legged in front of [the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial], and slowly his face bursts into a smile like flames."
One of the group of veterans that Emmett associates with, Pete is a bit of a braggart and a flirt. He shows Sam the map of the Jackson Purchase region of western Kentucky that is tattooed on his chest, but later, at the dance, he asks her not to mention to his wife that he had let her see it.
See Irene Joiner
Emmett's old girlfriend is still interested in him and would like to go out with him again. She makes her interest in him clear. "Oh, he's so cute," she tells Sam. "He'll say something that just makes me speechless." Sam also wishes that Anita and Emmett would get back together. She finds Anita a perfect match for him, smart and pretty and kind. She is a nurse, and she helps out with the dance that the local veterans throw. Seeing how happy Emmett is with her at the dance, Sam assumes that their romance has been rekindled, and is disappointed to learn that it has not.
Because the novel is set eleven years after America's withdrawal from Vietnam, and it focuses on a protagonist who does not have direct experience of the conflict but knows it through her uncle and the father she never knew, it is able to examine the emotional and psychological effects of war from a unique perspective. While a war is being fought, and for the years following it, attention is given mainly to the theoretical debates about why it was fought. This holds especially true of the Vietnam War, where disagreements about America's responsibilities and America's guilt overshadowed any interest in the veterans who did the actual fighting, making them pawns in a struggle between two determined ideologies.
In Country ignores the reasons for and against the war and has Emmett supporting both sides, first by joining the Army and then by joining the antiwar hippies. He is not a very vocal supporter of either. The novel is less concerned with the causes of war than its effects. Emmett's trauma is obvious: it is the result of killing and having friends killed all around, which have a lingering psychological effect, regardless of popular movies and stories that show tough characters shrugging off death in an instant. The war will always be with Emmett, and the fact that Vietnam veterans returned home to controversy instead of public praise makes it even harder for Emmett to live with what has been done.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the controversy that surrounded the building of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in 1982: Which groups objected to it? What was the basis of their objections? What compromise measures were taken to satisfy those who did not like the memorial as it was originally planned?
- When considering military options in the past two decades, in Haiti or Bosnia or Iraq for example, strategists have frequently expressed their concern about involving the country in "another Vietnam." How did that war change the U.S. government approaches military policy? Is this change a new, permanent way of viewing warfare, or will it fade as memories of the Vietnam War fade?
- In the novel, Sam reflects that Quang Ngai, where her father died, is near My Lai. Research the My Lai Massacre that happened in 1968. Explain how what happened there, and the Army's reaction to it might, have affected the way that Americans treated returning veterans.
- Contact the nearest Veteran's Administration and try to arrange for a Vietnam veteran to come to your school, or at least to be interviewed. Prepare a list of questions, based upon things that you learned from reading In Country, that you think Americans of your generation ought to know about the experience of being in Vietnam.
For Sam, the very fact that she did not experience the war is frustrating; the thing that has affected her life most profoundly is lost to history, where she cannot touch it. In the end of Part Two, Emmett tells her, "The main thing you learn from history is that you can't learn from history," but this does not help the fact that Sam is still affected by the war. In the end, though, when she sees her own name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and realizes that she is not just touched by Vietnam but is part of it, she can finally know some peace.
It is natural for someone like Sam, who never had the chance to know one of her parents, to wonder about the effect that missing person had on her personality. Genetically, a person is made up of the DNA of both parents, and in a traditional family both parents' personalities blend into their child's. In Sam's case, the only thing she has from her father is his genes, and she feels a lack of identity. Emmett has some elements in common with her father—he is an older male, and he fought in Vietnam—but he also represents her mother's side of Sam's identity and, because she has to take care of him, he does not represent a very good father figure. Tom Hudson can be seen as a father figure, and Sam's infatuation with him can be seen as a traditional Freudian pattern of turning a loss into a sex drive, but his impotence, while it does not bother Sam, makes him keep his distance from her.
The only other person in the book who is like Sam is her friend Dawn, but by getting pregnant young and planning to marry a local boy Dawn is too much like Sam's mother to fulfill the missing part of her identity. The only person who can complete Sam's identity is her father, Dwayne, who died when he was just about her age. She looks for him in many different places: books about Vietnam; in his photograph; in the stories of the veterans who returned; in the memories of his parents and her mother; in the letters he sent home; and in the war journal he kept. When she finally finds his name on the Memorial, she also finds, to her surprise, her own name, and she realizes that she is not alone but is part of a community.
Order and Disorder
"I work on staying together, one day at a time," Emmett tells Sam in the novel's climatic scene. "There's no room for anything else. It takes all of my energy." One of the striking things about In Country is that it presents a society that is not the one traditionally talked about in books, but that is nonetheless recognizable and is run by its own rules of order. A traditional view of small-town American culture might present the home of Sam's mother as being typical: a basic family unit (father, mother, and child), with the father working and the mother raising the baby and keeping herself distracted with crafts and the news. Another household that is similarly traditional is that of Lonnie's parents, Martha and Bud. In this novel, both of these ordinary households seem repressive.
In the fictional world Sam lives in, the most stable family unit is Sam and Emmett, a niece and her nephew, with her boyfriend coming over sometimes to watch television and spend the night. Other examples include Tom, who lives by himself over his garage; Jim and Sue Ann, who are separated (she moved 250 miles away to Lexington) but are still on good terms; and Dawn and Ken, who hope to create a family. The characters in this book who have the hardest time coping are undoubtedly the ones who were in the war, indicating that training young men for destruction is a negative factor in their creating order in their lives when they return home.
The setting of most of In Country is the small Kentucky town of Hopewell. The importance of this is that it adds to the sense of alienation that is felt by Emmett and, to a lesser degree, by Sam: anyone out of the ordinary is especially conspicuous in a small town, particularly in a small rural town, where ordinariness is actually pursued. In this setting, both Sam and Emmett feel that their neighbors look at them as "weird." "People in the town still talked about the day Emmett and the hippies flew the Vietcong flag from the courthouse tower," the story explains, even though that act is at least ten years in the past. Later, when they are trying on earrings, Sam's best friend Dawn tells her, "We're the baddest girls in Hopewell." This may not be an accurate reflection of how the people in the town feel in general, but it does convey their impression that most of the townspeople fear and mistrust them.
In addition to the particular state and town that the novel is set in, most of the action takes place in the house where Sam and Emmett live. The house is a symbolic reflection of Emmett's state of mind; he imagines that it is being overrun with fleas, which indicates his constant paranoia, and he feels that the structure is not solid, indicating that he is aware of his own instability. In this respect, it is a very good sign that he is trying to seal the cracks in the foundation, because this implies that Emmett is fighting against the further decay of his heart and mind.
Most of this novel is written in flashback, with the action happening before the "real time" that has been established for the story. The opening section, the four chapters that comprise the first twenty pages, is written with present tense verbs, explaining, for example, what Emmett "says" or how Sam "looks." The action in Part Two happened earlier in the summer, before the action in Part One, and it is conveyed in the past tense, describing what a character "said" or "did." In the third section the action continues from where it left off at the end of Part One, and the narrative voice resumes the present tense.
Structuring the book this way achieves several benefits. Letting readers know early about the trip to Washington that actually happens after most of the action in the novel helps keep their attention focused on the outcome as they move through the loosely-connected events that are presented in Part Two. Using different tenses to indicate different time frames helps readers keep a clear chart of what is happening when. And splitting the action into two time frames allows the story to have two climaxes: the climax of Part Two occurs at Cawood's Swamp, when Emmett is able to talk about his experience of the war, and the story that begins in Part One and ends in Part Three climaxes, of course, at the Memorial.
Of particular symbolic significance in this book is the idea of motion, especially moving away from something, or taking flight. The book begins with three characters travelling down the interstate highway, and when they stop for the night Sam puts on her running shoes and runs for a few miles. As the story develops, readers are told that Emmett's first response when he returned from the was to travel aimlessly out west, to Albuquerque, Eugene, Santa Cruz—American literature has a long-standing tradition of characters escaping their worries and heading to the west, which was the last part of the continent for civilization to reach. Sam's mother Irene escaped from Hopewell and went east to Lexington twice. The first time, with Bob the hippie, she felt a little too free, and worried that they would not be able to live up to the obligation of raising a child. She is apparently comfortable with life with her husband Larry, which enables her to care for her baby and to expand into new areas, such as her crafts group, although she still dreams of going further east, to the source of American civilization, to England.
All of this symbolism of flight is concentrated into the image of birds. Most obvious of these is Emmett's interest in seeing an egret, which is one of the few things he is able to focus his attention on. Ironically, it is a bird that he saw in Vietnam, meaning that even as he is trying to escape, to fly, he is taking himself back to the site of his trauma, to correct his problem at its source. The car that Sam yearns for so anxiously throughout the summer is called "a good little bird" by her early in the novel, because it offers her freedom to seek the answers she needs in the world beyond Hopewell, whether that entails going to the Hughes farm several miles out of town or all the way to Washington, D.C.
The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which is the source of spiritual healing for Sam, Emmett, and Mawmaw, is surrounded by images of flight. Sam thinks of a dream in which the memorial was a black boomerang, "whizzing toward her head"; the narrator explains that the Memorial is V-shaped, "like the wings of an abstract bird, huge and headless. Overhead, a jet plane angles, taking off." At the moment that Sam finally understands Emmett's fourteen years of grieving for the men who died around him in the war, another jet flies overhead"Its wings are angled back too, like a bird's"; as Mawmaw explains that visiting the memorial has given her hope, "she loosens her bird-like claw grip" from Sam's arm.
The Vietnam War
As is usually the case when seeking the cause of any war, the roots of the Vietnam War can be traced backwards in time for decades or even centuries, to ancient injustices and insults that have boiled over into modern times. One place to start explaining the war could be the remote year of 208 BC, the year that the Han dynasty of China expanded southward declaring the region that contains modern Vietnam to be a new Chinese province. This began a cycle of Chinese invasion and local resistance that has flared up sporadically ever since.
Another source of the conflict came in 1863, when the French, in the process of colonizing the region that they called Indochina, established a protectorate over Cambodia and began the process of annexing Cochinchina (southern Vietnam), then Annam (central Vietnam), then Tonkin (northem Vietnam). French imperialism throughout the first decades of the twentieth century shifted the wealth of the land from the Vietnamese to the hands of the colonizers. By 1940, for instance, there were 600 rubber plantations in Vietnam, all owned by a few French companies.
During World War II, Vietnam, like many small countries in southeast Asia, was controlled by Japan, and when Japan surrendered to Allied forces in August of 1945 the Vietnamese people were left with two very different ideas of what the fate of their country should be. One side believed that the country had struggled against Japanese control in order to be independent; these people, concentrated in the north, followed the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh and joined his party, the Viet Minh, in fighting for their freedom. The other faction, mostly in the south of the country, believed that it was inevitable that French rule would return and that it was necessary for restoring order, and they feared the idea of letting the country fall into Communist hands. The Viet Minh wrote a declaration of independence and were supported by Communist China and, briefly, American advisors who had been in Vietnam during the war to help the rebels oppose Japan.
The tension in Vietnam broke out into fighting in 1946, and the country formally divided into two parts, with the Communist government based in Hanoi in the North and the French operating out of Saigon in the south. French opposition to the Viet Minh lasted from 1946 to 1954, when a peace agreement was reached and the French agreed to leave after they helped South Vietnam establish an independent, non-Communist government. As the French withdrew, the United States sent more support to South Vietnam. By 1957, Communist rebels in South Vietnam, who were called the Viet Cong, were staging attacks against U.S. bases, and they began guerilla attacks against the South Vietnamese government in 1959. The Viet Cong received ever-increasing support from the Communist government of North Vietnam, which was in turn supported by Russia and China, so American support to the South increased.
In December 1961 the first U.S. troops arrived in Saigon—400 uniformed army personnel. A year later, there were 11,200 U.S. troops in Vietnam; by the end of 1965 the number was up to 200,000. Despite increasing opposition from American citizens, the government continued to commit troops, reaching a peak in 1969, when 543,400 military personnel were stationed in Vietnam. A peace accord was reached in 1973, after 57,685 U.S. soldiers had died and 153,303 were wounded (which only reflected a fraction of the 2 million Vietnamese casualties, with 3 million wounded). In December 1974, after all of the American troops were gone, the North Vietnamese and their allies launched a major offensive, and in April of 1975 Saigon fell to invading forces and the country was united in Communism.
The Opposition at Home
In the United States, the opposition to the Vietnam War grew in scope and intensity, to the extent that today the image of protestors is a stronger symbol of the 1960s to most Americans than the soldiers who fought in the war. Organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society and the Young Socialists Alliance organized the struggle against the war on college campuses throughout the country. During the 1960s, there was a huge swell in college enrollments, caused by the children of veterans who had returned after World War II to find the country more stable and prosperous than it had been since the Stock Market Crash in 1929.
College students were the logical dissenters: they were the age of the boys who were being drafted into the army, their peer group; they were educated about the complexities of the Vietnam situation and were less likely than mainstream Americans to fear Communists or the Viet Cong without examining their theoretical positions; and, being young and for the most part away from home for the first time in their lives, college students were psychologically poised to rebel against authority. Using techniques that and proved successful for the Civil Rights demonstrations in the late 1950s and early 1960s (most notably, sit-ins and protest marches), the anti-war movement gained popular support.
Compare & Contrast
1985: Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, marking the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. Gorbachev instituted the policy of glasnost, emphasizing govenmment openness and honesty. In December of 1991 the Soviet Union officially dissolved, allowing its constituent countries to elect their own representative governments.
Today: Not faced with the threat of Communism, the United States is less likely to enter into a war like the one in Vietnam for the sake of maintaining a global balance of power.
1985: The United States became a debtor nation, spending more than it had to spend, for the first time in over seventy years.
Today: Politicians are cutting social programs in an attempt to bring federal expenditures in balance with the government's income. Schemes to balance the budget have come and gone since the 1980s, but economists say that current expectations are possible if the economy stays strong.
1985: AIDS, which was then still a new and unfamiliar disease, gained international awareness when Rock Hudson, 59, a popular movie and television star, died of the disease. The public did not know that the actor was infected until he collapsed in a restaurant on July 21, and his quick death on October 2 shocked fans.
Today: Basketball player Magic Johnson, who announced to the world in 1991 that he had HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), has kept the disease in control with medication.
1985: Compact discs and compact disc players were introduced, giving improved sound quality and portability to the personal music market.
Today: Some die-hard fans still stand by the sound quality of vinyl record albums, but few new recordings are released on vinyl any more.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection, convinced that he would not be reelected because of his role in sending American troops to Vietnam; at that year's Democratic convention in Chicago, anti-war protestors commanded the world's attention. In 1969, the moratorium protest against the war brought 250,000 marchers to Washington, D.C., the site of the 1963 Civil Rights protest where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech to a similarly large crowd. At a rally at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on 1000 protestors, killing four. That event changed opposition to the war symbolically, making average Americans see it less of a fight between students and the government and more like a fight of the government against its citizens.
By the time the war ended in 1973, most Americans did not care that the country had never walked away unsuccessfully from a war before, and they did not care what happened to South Vietnam; they had seen the killing in graphic living color on their televisions and had experienced social strife at home, and they were sick of it all. Returning veterans were treated as reminders of an episode in the country's history that had created misery and destruction and had yielded no real good.
Critics have been impressed with Bobbie Ann Mason's works since the publication of her first book of fiction, Shiloh, and Other Stories in 1982. Most reviews and essays about her work concentrate on one of three areas: her use of simple, "normal" speech and her pop culture references (such as the use of franchise-store locations and television programs); her rendering of complex and inarticulate characters; and her importance as a Southern writer.
Regarding her use of ordinary people's language and artifacts, most critics, like most readers, agree that Mason has created a new and special form since her first published stories. Frank Conroy, a distinguished American author and critic, noted in his review of Spence + Lila (Mason's novel following In Country) that in her earlier works she "has shown a deft touch for the craft of narrative fiction and has charmed many readers with her ability to write dialogue, particularly the dialogue of country folk."
Nicci Gerard wrote a review in the New Statesman & Society that contrasted Mason's style with the somewhat similar (but actually quite different) styles used by other writers at the time. Mason's simplicity, she wrote, was "not the cool clever minimalism of her urban contemporaries, nor the 'dirty realism' that has so recently fired the dissatisfied American imagination." By making this distinction, she set Mason aside from a crowd of other writers made their fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s by making use of mass consumerism and tightly-wound, inarticulate characters.
David Y. Todd made a similar distinction while reviewing the 1989 collection Love Life: "Inhibition seems endemic to (her characters') culture," he wrote, and he went on to state his wish that more of Mason's people could relate to one another better, but adds that "to do this would be false to the people she is writing about." It is, in fact, Mason's characters that critics seem to have the most problem with in the few cases where they have any problem with her writing at all. Most reviews and essays express admiration for the people that she illuminates in her stories.
For example, Richard Giannone's in-depth analysis, "Bobbie Ann Mason and the Recovery of Mystery" in Studies in Short Fiction credited the author for being able to see beyond her characters' situations: "She is alive to the distant, unseen dimension of life. One way into her art is to see how her characters, who are lost amid the Burger Chefs, K-Marts and television talk shows that level western Kentucky into the nondescript American landscape, find their spiritual portion in the turmoil."
Others simply appreciate the way that she treats the people that spring from her imagination, as seen in Michael Dorris' comment in his review of Spence + Lila for the Chicago Tribune that "Mason writes about her characters with respect and occasional lyricism." Frank Conroy, whose praise of Mason's writing is cited above, later in the same review captured the vague dissatisfaction that critics seem to be getting at when they review her works, even when it does not seem that they themselves do not know what is making them unhappy. "So what's wrong?" Conroy wrote. "Why does one feel increasingly uneasy as this smooth, artful writing flows by page after page? Perhaps out of the suspicion that the author has reduced the central characters down to manageable form to make them fit into the book, rather than risking the attempt to deal with fully complex characters who might represent more of a threat to the neatness of the narrative."
Most serious examinations of Mason's works have taken note of the fact that the area she writes about, western Kentucky, qualifies her as a Southern writer, and they link her to the long history of Southern fiction. In an essay from Spring, 1987, Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., credited her with being the salvation of a category that was starting to face to history: "It is just possible that Mason is charting new directions for Southern fiction, a rebirth of sorts adapting patterns from the past to enrich and comprehend the disorder of contemporary experience." Although most reviewers have not pinned the future of a whole literary tradition on her, reviews generally do note that the tradition of rural storytellers shows up in Mason's works in a contemporary was.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor at Adrian College and has written for a variety of academic journal and educational publishers. In the following essay, she argues that Sam Hughes, the main character of In Country, struggles with the issues of creating a text in her attempts to understand her father's life and the Vietnam War.
In Country, Bobbie Ann Mason's first novel, was published in 1985. Before the publication of the novel, Mason was known primarily as a writer of short stories. Her work has often been compared to that of Raymond Carver and Anne Beattie. Much of Mason's work is set in rural Kentucky and her characters are caught between the traditions of the past and the intrusions of popular culture. Often characterized as a minimalist, Mason employs lean, spare prose peppered with brand names, television shows, and rock and roll music.
The novel generally met with praise from reviewers when it appeared in 1985. Joel Conarroe, for example, called In Country "a meticulously crafted novel." Not all reviewers were enamored with Mason's style, however, criticizing what they viewed as flat dialogue and cliched characters.
Nevertheless, in the years since the first publication of the novel, In Country has generated considerable critical interest. Nearly every collection of essays on Vietnam War literature includes at least one chapter on the novel, and articles treating In Country appear regularly in academic journals.
Critics choose the read the novel in several ways. Some see the novel as a Bildungsroman, that is, a coming-of-age story. They see it as the tale of a girl growing into womanhood and into a mature understanding of her place in the world. Robert Brinkmeyer credits Sam's growth to her confrontation with her own history and the history of the Vietnam War. Other writers choose to examine gender issues in the novel, opposing Sam's quest for knowledge with the reticence of the vets. Certainly, at times it seems that the vets are unwilling to let women, including Sam, into the secrets of the war. Finally, others such as Barbara Ryan focus on language, texts, and truth. For Ryan, Sam serves as a model of a modernist reader, looking for authoritative truth, who grows into a postmodernist reader, able to understand that there are many truths to the Vietnam War.
Viewing Sam as a reader offers an interesting way into the story. It is possible, however, to consider Sam not only as a reader of texts, but also as a creator of texts. When we observe Sam trying to piece together the fragments of her father's life, we see her struggle with the very issues all writers face: finding reliable sources, doing adequate research, accounting for contradictory reports, and shaping a cohesive narrative out of source material that is both uncooperative and ambiguous, attractive and repellant. Further, it may be possible to attribute some of the critical interest in In Country to the ambiguity of the Vietnam War and to our own need to shape a cohesive and acceptable narrative that at once explains and contains the Vietnam War.
Sam's role as textual creator defines itself early on in the book. She has already demonstrated her interest in the war and in her father, and has been reading history books in an attempt to find answers to her questions. However, it is at the following moment that we realize that Sam will be required to do more than read:
Sam took her Collegiate Dictionary from the shelf. It was a graduation present from her mother—a hint that she should go to college. Boys got cars for graduation, but girls usually had to buy their own cars because they were expected to get married—to guys with cars. Inside the dictionary was her only picture of her father.
Here then before her are the tools of her trade: Dwayne Hughes' picture, a wordless and lifeless portrait in two dimensions; and the dictionary. It seems especially significant that Sam has chosen to keep her father's picture in the dictionary. The dictionary is a collection of words, each word with a definition made up of yet other words. The dictionary exists not as a repository of meaning, but rather as potential for the creation of meaning. Sam's task is to string together the words that will bring her father to life. More important, perhaps, is her second task, to string the words together that will connect her to her father. At this moment, as she looks at her father's picture, and then at her own face in the mirror, she unable to "see any resemblance to him."
The sources that Sam assembles include books, records, television shows, Emmett, Emmett's friends, her mother, her grandparents, her father's letters, and her father's diaries. Some of her sources she rejects early on; the history books are dull, and they don't "say what it was like to be at war." She also rejects M.A.S.H as a source of information because she knows that it is not real.
In addition, Sam runs into problems with her research. The veterans are reluctant to talk to her. Some say that they would rather forget about it. Others tell her that they want to protect her from Vietnam and the war. And still others tell her that because she has not experienced the Vietnam War herself, she can never know anything about it. As Pete says to her, " 'Stop thinking about Vietnam, Sambo. You don't know how it was, and you never will. There is no way you can ever understand. So just forget it. Unless you've been humping the boonies, you don't know.' "
It is possible, of course, to read the veteran's reluctance to talk to Sam about the war as their desire to control the story itself. After all, Sam is a loose cannon. Who knows what kind of story her research will lead her to? Who knows how each contribution will figure in the final product? Most important, who knows how Sam might appropriate the veterans' stories and make them her own?
What Do I Read Next?
- The soldiers interviewed by Al Santoli for his 1981 book Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three Soldiers Who Fought It tell the sort of short, focused, poignant tales of their experiences that the veterans in In Country come up with infrequently.
- One of the best writers to emerge from the Vietnam experience is Tim O'Brien. His book The Things They Carried was many years in the making (it was published in 1990) and it uses a new form, neither really novel nor short story collection, that reflects the uncertainty of life during war.
- Many veterans of the Vietnam war have written of their experiences, giving Americans a wide opportunity to look at what their life was like. Vince Gotera has put together a book that examines one particular genre, poetry, in his 1994 collection Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans, published by University of Georgia Press. Much of the text of this book is explanation of the times and of the works, with proportionally few actual poems included.
- The story of combat veteran Robert Mason closely parallels the story that Emmett can only hint at. His book Chickenhawk, published in 1983, was hailed as one of the best of the generation of Vietnam autobiographies, and it led to 1993's Chickenhawk: Back In The World, about the experiences from 1966 to 1992, which may seem like a long time for him to carry the trauma of war to those who have not read In Country.
- While the testimonies of average people who just happened to have become involved in the war are interesting in themselves, it is also informational to see the war experience reflected by people whose job it is to capture reality. Eric James Schroder followed this idea in 1992, with the publication of Vietnam, We've All Been There: Interviews With American Writers. Not all of the writers in this book served in the military during the war, but all have a unique perspective to offer.
Sam also runs into contradictory reports. Her grandparents tell her that her father was a nice boy. When Sam reads the diary that he left, she is shocked by what she finds there. Instead of the nice boy, she finds a scared, shallow kid who talks about the smell of dead "gooks." Sam finally understands that her grandparents, too, are trying to control the story of Dwayne's life. The story needs to be one that they can live with, even if it means ignoring the written record that he has left behind.
Further, the diary as source material both attracts and repels Sam. As much as she wants to know about her father, she hates what she finds, as she tells Emmett: "The way he talked about gooks and killing—I hated it.… I hate him. He was awful, the way he talked about gooks and killing."
Sam's trip to Cawood's Pond in order to recreate the soldier's experience is an exercise in contradictions. At the same time that she is trying to recreate the experience, she is also trying to separate herself from it. She imagines that women would never kill and make war the way that men do, but then she recognizes that this is not true:
Women were practical. They would bury a dead bird when it started to stink. They wouldn't collect teeth and ears for souvenirs. They wouldn't cut notches on their machetes.… Then chills rushed over her. Soldiers murdered babies. But women did too. They ripped their own unborn babies out of themselves and flushed them away, squiming and bloody. The chills wouldn't stop.
Perhaps even more to the point, Sam begins to identify with her father, even as she rejects him. She recognizes that her own "insensitive curiosity" is identical to his. Her identification with her father grows throughout her night at Cawood's Pond. When Emmett finds her in the morning, she confronts him with what she has found in her father's diary. Emmett breaks down and tells her his worst experience in Vietnam. In addition, Emmett identifies himself with Dwayne as a soldier: "'Look here, little girl. He could have been me. All of us, it was the same.' " A few moments later, Emmett identifies himself with Dwayne as Sam's father: " 'I want to be a father. But I can't. The closest I can come is with you. And I failed. I should never have let you go so wild. I should have taken care of you.' " Sam responds that Emmett and Dwayne went to Vietnam for her mother's sake, and for hers. With this response, the story Sam is creating now includes herself.
When Sam, Emmett, and Mamaw arrive at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, Sam's identification with her father, with Emmett, and with the Vietnam War is complete. She reads her own name on the Wall, understanding herself to be simultaneously a creator and a participant in the on-going narration of the War. By including herself in the story she creates for her father, she integrates herself into the Wall itself. By so doing, she creates a story in which "all the names in America have been used to decorate this wall." Distinctions of gender and age disappear in Sam's narration, a narration that swells to include us all.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Ellen A. Blais
In the following excerpt, Bliss supports her premise that the questions raised by one family's experience of the Vietnam war cannot be understood without also addressing gender issues that form the subtext of In Country.
Clearly, In Country's basic text is about the process whereby Samantha Hughes learns about the Vietnam War, her dead father's role in that war, and her Uncle Emmett's experiences there. But just as surely the novel contains a subtext dealing with the way attitudes toward gender have conditioned the characters' interpretation of that experience. I propose here to look at this aspect of In Country in the depiction of the world of the novel and the values of its minor characters, and particularly in Sam's development.
An examination of seemingly peripheral cultural background elements illustrates that the novel ties together the issues of gender and war throughout. The opening section demonstrates this. As the characters relax in their motel room watching television, a special about Geraldine Ferraro's presence on the 1984 Democratic Presidential ticket produces the following dialogue:
"She won't get elected," Mamaw says. "Nobody's ready for a woman up there."
Sam reminds her that Kentucky has a woman governor.
"Geraldine's dynamite," Emmett says when a picture of Geraldine Ferraro appears on the screen. "I like her accent."
"She wouldn't get us in a war," says Sam. "Reagan wants to go to war."
National television portrays a culture in which women are replacing men in some capacities and in which they may bring to society values very different from those of their male counterparts. Conversely, males like Boy George, mentioned several times in the novel, may achieve fame by imitating aspects of female dress and behavior. As we shall see later, the novel is full of random details of this sort, introduced casually through the characters' conversations or the ubiquitous television, ideas and ways of behaving that are suddenly "in the air" both in the larger American culture of the mideighties and in smaller places like Hopewell, Kentucky.
Descriptions of M*A*S*H reruns, Emmett's and Sam's chief entertainment, provide several references to Corporal Klinger and his comic crossdressing. When Emmett, dressed in a "long, thin Indian-print skirt with elephants and peacocks on it," cooks dinner for Sam and her boyfriend Lonnie, the latter interprets this as Emmett's imitation of Corporal Klinger, making cross-dressing acceptable for Lonnie, the stereotypically masculine type who "didn't even like Boy George.…"
While Emmett imitates aspects of the feminine, Sam is associated with a variety of masculine qualities. Her very name suggests gender ambiguity. In fact, she offers it to her pregnant friend Dawn because "'Sam's an all-purpose name. It fits boys and girls both.' " Sam's name sets her off from the other, excessively feminine, characters in the novel whose names, like Dawn and Heather, Irene and Anita, would never allow for gender confusion.
Sam is frequently seen and sees herself in a masculine context. When she, Emmett, and Lonnie, after having a few beers, go to Cawood's Pond, she rides in the back of Lonnie's pickup and, slightly high on the beer, feels "like a soldier in an armored personnel carrier." As Sam looks at the only photograph she has of her father, she sees him in a "dark uniform with a cap like the one [she] had worn when she worked at the Burger Boy." These references prepare the reader for Sam's attempt to recreate her father's and Emmett's war experiences in Cawood's Pond.…
Because of different gender attitudes among characters in the novel, we see generational differences occasionally lead to different assumptions about gender-appropriate behavior. Mamaw fibs about needing to stop at a gas station and take a pill because she "[doesn't] want Emmett to know she [has] to pee." She also hesitates to share a motel room with Emmett because she is not related to him by blood. Grandma Smith, Sam's maternal grandmother, thinks to explain Emmett's apparent lack of interest in women by reference to the mumps he had had as a child, which might have "fallen" and which, she says, " 'affect boys in their—balls—and when they grow up they can't have children.' "…
Sam's parents' generation also has conservative attitudes toward gender. Lonnie's parents embody very traditional roles. Lonnie's mother, Martha, devotes most of her energy to decorating and cooking. Both Martha and her husband Bud find it strange that Emmett does not work, as does Emmett's father, who wants to know when he will " 'get a job like everybody else and stop fooling around.' " The men work, and while the women may also work, they are still associated primarily with domestic concerns. Cindy, a veteran's wife, makes him take down his map of Vietnam because it just does not " 'fit her decorating scheme. ' "…
Ostensibly, people in Hopewell believe that women are to be protected and controlled. One of the veterans says of HBO," 'I wouldn't let my wife watch it.' " But there are also signs of change. When a veteran's wife leaves him to go to Lexington, it is evidently not because their relationship has broken down. Her husband says, philosophically, " 'She got a job offer up at this place where she used to work.… Maybe we'll be one of those long-distance marriages.… We always tried to be modern.' "
Anita Stevens, Emmett's former girlfriend, is most interesting in terms of the novel's preoccupations with gender. Sexy and attractive in conventional ways—even just sitting at home, she wears "dark fuchsia pants with a silver belt and string-strap heels," as well as "a pale pink blouse and some silver chains"—Anita is nonetheless opposed to marriage and fancy weddings. She combines behavior that suggests feminine values with a rejection of practices the culture uses to celebrate publicly women's place within social institutions such as marriage. Although she does bake cakes, she says, " 'I got Betty Crocker this time.… I like her a whole lot better than Duncan Hines. That old fool.' " She blames her failed marriage on conventional gender roles and expectations: " 'He played baseball, and he was good-looking as all hell, but he didn't know what to make of me. He wanted me to be a picture. That's all I was supposed to do, just be beautiful.' " She dates but doesn't want to be possessed.…
Even among Sam's peers, gender assumptions still sound more like those of the fifties than those of the eighties. Sam's friend Dawn and Dawn's boyfriend Ken, as their names suggest, appear to take their gender roles straight from Matell's Barbie. Sam finds Dawn "very pretty." … Dawn is pregnant, but vehemently rejects Sam's suggestions that she get an abortion. Although she has played a wifely role for her father since her mother's death, she is, nonetheless, eager to leave home in the only way she seems able to imagine, marrying and starting her own family.
Sam's boyfriend, Lonnie, resembles the males Anita finds objectionable—both macho and possessive. When Lonnie attends a stag party for his brother, he wants to take a pair of Sam's underwear—" 'Those black ones I like.' " While Lonnie obviously likes and admires Emmett, he also betrays some conventional fears about Emmett's behavior and thinks that Agent Orange can " 'settle [in the genitals] and practically turn you into a woman.' "…
Sam sees men as the ones who are good at making things: "All the men she knew fiddled with gadgets. They were always fixing something." When she is at Cawood's Pond, she feels diminished by her inability to do what soldiers are supposed to do in her place: "She felt so stupid. She couldn't dig a foxhole even if she had to, because she didn't have the tools." Instead, she watches a mother racoon and her babies. But later she does think "that woman Mondale nominated could probably dig one." Unfortunately, Sam has difficulty with Geraldine Ferraro as any kind of role model because she does not like Ferraro's "old lady suits." Sam wants to wear hot pink tank tops, leather-look panties, and dig foxholes.
Part of Sam's difficulty stems from the fact that she subscribes to some of the standard conceptions about gender-appropriate behavior. She is, herself, somewhat uncomfortable with Emmett's failure to pursue the accepted male roles of worker, husband, and father. She thinks of men as makers and fixers, and she responds to her stepfather's playing with baby Heather much as her grandmothers might: "It made Sam feel strange to see a grown man playing with a baby."
In fact, the crux of Sam's ambivalence about gender is her discomfort with babies. She really wants Dawn to have an abortion, and when Dawn asks if she isn't worried about the side effects of her birth control pills, Sam replies, " 'Having a baby would be a pretty big side effect.' " Although she does dream she and Tom Hudson have a baby, in the dream they puree it every night and store it in the freezer. When Irene comes to visit with baby Heather, Sam's ambivalence is even more pronounced: "Her digestion was screwed up and seeing the baby made her nervous.…"
Sam's dilemma is that she is fighting both biological and cultural imperatives. In her cultural milieu, traditional roles are still very much in evidence for both men and women although there are some exceptions such as Anita Stevens. In his refusal to work and have a family, Emmett is still seen as eccentric, and Irene refers to Anita as " 'on the loose' " as though Irene were just waiting for someone to catch Anita. Even though Sam has been accepted by both the University of Kentucky and Murray State for the fall, her preoccupation with Emmett and the veterans makes it hard for her to see this as an avenue of escape from the narrow confines of small-town Southern culture.…
Her decision to attend the University of Kentucky rather than remain in Hopewell, working at the Burger Boy and taking care of Emmett, indicates she will probably be able to do this without slipping into conventional feminine roles.
As the novel progresses, the connections between gender and the war become more pronounced. When Sam and Lonnie have dinner with his parents and the subject turns to the Vietnam veterans, Lonnie's father, Bud, expresses regret at having been born " 'between wars' " because he feels he " 'missed out on something important.' " Sam catches him up: " 'If there wasn't a war for fifty years and two whole generations didn't have to fight, do you mean there should have been a war for them? Is that why we have wars—so guys won't miss out?' "…
Sam approaches understanding the Vietnam experience through her father's experience there. She needs to know more than she finds from the unrevealing letters he had sent Irene, letters in which he "made marching through the jungle seem like a rare privilege" and "didn't say he was scared." But a notebook her father had kept in Vietnam tells Sam a different story. This notebook reveals to her some of the horrors of the war and precipitates her running off to Cawood's Pond, the event that shocks Emmett into acknowledging to Sam and himself the horror of his own experience in the war.
Reading Dwayne's accounts of rotting bodies and his first kill sickens Sam, who struggles to understand by connecting what she reads with her own experiences: "She recalled the dead cat she dug up once in Grandma's garden, and she realized her own insensitive curiosity was just like her father's. She felt humiliated and disgusted." Upon returning home and finding that Emmett has set off a flea bomb in the house to rid it of his cat Moon Pie's fleas, Sam imaginatively connects this with the war.… Sam realizes Emmett, like Dwayne, must have killed: "Emmett had helped kill those Vietnamese, the same way he killed the fleas".…
However, during the night at Cawood's Pond, Sam begins revising her notions of men and war; she strives to "feel what wretches feel." Walking through the dark swamp, Sam "was walking point. The cypress knees were like land mines." Yet she holds briefly her conviction that women would behave differently, they "wouldn't collect teeth and ears for souvenirs.… Soldiers murdered babies." But even this is qualified: "[W]omen did too. They ripped their own unborn babies out of themselves and flushed them away, squirming and bloody."
Gradually, however, Sam begins to identify more and more with the soldiers and with her father. But she does this while in a curious way also identifying herself with women and their experiences of terror and violence. In the morning, hearing Emmett looking for her, she thinks she is being stalked by a rapist and prepares for an attack:
Hurriedly, she worked to create a weapon with the sharp edge of [a] can.… The V.C. rapist-terrorist was still on the boardwalk.… A curious pleasure stole over her. This terror was what the soldiers had felt every minute.… They were completely alive, every nerve on edge.… She put herself in Moon Pie's place. In Emmett's place.… She was in her father's place, in a foxhole in the jungle.… She felt more like a cat than anything, small and fragile and alert to movement.… It was a new way of seeing.
Here Sam seems involved in the kind of imaginative identification that takes her beyond the simply male or female or indeed merely human, an identification, in fact, with basic animal nature. However, when Emmett discounts her swamp experience as merely a childish attempt to get revenge on him for running off to Lexington earlier in the novel and frightening her, she responds by retreating to her oversimplifications of war and the male experience in it: " 'That's what you were doing in Vietnam. That explains what the whole country was doing over there. The least little threat and America's got to put on its cowboy boots and stomp around and show somebody a thing or two.' "
As they leave Cawood's Pond, it is finally Emmett's passive, almost Eastern wisdom Sam and the reader are left with: "He waved at the dark swamp. 'There are some things you can never figure out.' "
As Sam approaches the Vietnam Memorial in Washington … [she] moves beyond her preoccupation with men and war, women and war, to the essential human preoccupation with mortality.… This is the "work" Emmett has been engaged in since coming home from Vietnam. Sam has been doing this "work" throughout the novel as she searches out the details of her father's experiences and death during the war. But, in coming to accept Dwayne's dealing out and suffering death, Sam accepts her own complicity in war, violence, and death itself, her own mortality as well as America's "mortality," figured here in military defeat:
As they drive into Washington … Sam feels sick with apprehension. She has kept telling herself that the memorial is only a rock with names on it.… Maybe that's the point. People shouldn't make so much of death.… Sometimes in the middle of the night it struck Sam with sudden clarity that she was going to die someday.… But now, as she and Emmett and Mamaw Hughes drive into Washington, where the Vietnam Memorial bears the names of so many who died, the reality of death hits her in broad daylight.
We see Washington's monuments through Sam's eyes, perhaps through her "new way of seeing," and here the gender issues in the novel appear to merge with the war issues as the novel concludes with a series of startlingly sexual images. Sam first sees the Washington Monument, rising "up out of the earth, proud and tall. She remembers Tom's bitter comment about it—a big white prick. She once heard someone say the U.S.A. goes around fucking the world." She sees the Vietnam Memorial in a number of metaphorical ways suggesting female genitalia and death, beauty and terror. "It is … a black gash in a hillside, like a vein of coal exposed and then polished with polyurethane.… It is like a giant grave." As she walks down into the foxhole that is also the memorial, Sam feels "something so strong, it is like a tornado moving in her, something massive and overpowering. It feels like giving birth to this wall." For Sam, this is a moment of transcendence that nullifies the simpler categories of male and female, war and peace, evil and good.
After she has found her father's name etched into the wall, Sam goes to the directory to look at his name there among the Hugheses. She finds her own as well and then rushes to see it on the wall: "SAM A HUGHES. It is the first on a line.… She touches her own name. How odd it feels, as though all the names in America have been used to decorate this wall." This experience, unlike her experience at Cawood's Pond, becomes, for Sam, a successful fusion of the contradictions within her of male and female.
Source: Ellen A. Blais, "Gender Issues in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country" in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 56, No. 2, May, 1991, pp. 107-118.
Sandra Bonilla Durham
In the following excerpt, Durham explores Mason's young female protagonist's quest to understand why men wage war.
In an interview with Wendy Smith, Bobbie Ann Mason explains that she did not consciously choose to write about Vietnam, that she had characters and action in mind before she realized that they had anything to do with the war. She says, "I think it came out of my unconscious, the same way it's coming out of America's unconscious. It's just time for it to surface."…
Although the novel focuses on seventeen-year-old Sam Hughes' search for the meaning of the Vietnam War, particularly the death of her father, it explores the personal loss of other members of the Hughes family and the changes brought by the war to the community and the nation. In Country is structured around two quests. Sam, her grandmother MawMaw, and her uncle Emmett make a three-day journey by car to Washington, D.C., to see the Vietnam War Memorial. This quest is the result of another—Sam's going both literally and figuratively into the wilderness, or "in country," to test her ability to survive. "In country" is the phrase veterans use to refer to their time in Vietnam, and Cawood's pond, a dangerous swamp, is Sam's symbolic Vietnam. Mason articulates Sam's motives for facing the wilderness:
If men went to war for women, and for unborn generations, then she was going to find out what they went through. Sam didn't think the women or the unborn babies had any say in it. If it were up to women, there wouldn't be any war. No, that was a naive thought. When women got power they were just like men. She thought of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher. She wouldn't want to meet these women out in the swamp at night.
What would make people want to kill? If the U.S.A. sent her to a foreign country, with a rifle and a heavy backpack, could she root around in the jungle, sleep in the mud, and shoot at strangers? How did the army get boys to do that? Why was there war?
These words convey Sam's anger and confusion about the war and its aftermath—the psychic wilderness in which she is struggling for survival. Her confusion includes questioning her role as a domesticated woman—Dawn's friend, Lonnie's lover, Irene's daughter, and Emmett's caretaker— and her role as free woman—a strong individual emotionally isolated from her culture and questing for a deeper sense of self. She thinks of herself as having "so much evil and bad stuff in her now."
The archetype of Sam's journey may be Psyche's search, Sam is, like Psyche, the feminine principle: "Psyche divinized is consciousness raised. Her journey is the feminine journey from blind, instinctual attraction to a knowing, individualized love" [Nor Hall, The Moon and the Virgin: Reflection on the Archetypal Feminine, 1980]. Sam moves from caring for Emmett because he is family and a real life version of the damaged veterans on television to real love for her uncle and understanding of his deep sorrow.
Sam's quest, like Psyche's, is motivated by distrust, jealousy, hatred, and fear. Her distrust of the social system, her jealousy of Irene, her hatred of the war, and her fear for Emmett's health and sanity have separated her from her family and friends and have created division within herself. Sam's going in country enables her to deal with these feelings as Psyche's solitary ordeals purge her. Like Psyche, "by attending to the self in isolation, rather than repressing its demands or seeking distractions, [Sam's] process of discovery is furthered." [Hall, 1980] …
Emmett, like Sam, is seeking wholeness and his place. He is intelligent and amiable, but he finds work meaningless and relationships difficult. He and Sam subsist on her education benefits, and Emmett spends his time cooking for Sam, watching TV, playing video games, and birdwatching. Mason says … "There is a certain kind of exotic bird he has been looking for." … This bird is one of the major symbols in the novel. Emmett tells Sam the bird is an egret, a beautiful white wader he used to see in the rice paddies in Vietnam. He says, "That was a good memory. The only fucking one. That beautiful bird just going about its business with all that crazy stuff going on.…" The bird represents life and beauty surviving in the midst of death and horror.
Sam's mother, Irene, always independent and adventurous, has left her former self behind and has remarried, moved to Lexington, where she is attending college, and has had a baby. Sam resents Irene's leaving Hopewell and is somewhat jealous of Irene's new life. Sam longs for the past when Irene made popcom and they watched M*A*S*H together. Playing Irene's old rock records keeps Sam in touch with the past she shared with her mother and, in absentia, her father.…
When Sam visits her grandparents, Grandma and Granddad Smith, Irene and Emmett's parents, she gains a clearer insight into how the war affected the family and the community.… Grandma has been talking about the younger generation's lack of faith and she adds, "Hopewell used to be the best place to bring up kids, but now it's not." Grandma does not elaborate on the loss of traditional values, but the idea is reinforced by her and Granddad's exchange about Emmett's service:
"He was raring to go over there and fight," said Granddad.
"You were all for him going!" Grandma cried angrily. "You said the army would make a man out of him. But look what it done."
"It's not too late," Granddad said. "It's not too late to pull himself up and be proud."…
A visit to MawMaw and Pap Hughes, whom Sam hasn't seen in two years, provides more insight. They live far out in the country which Sam imagines has changed little since her father had lived there. She begins to abandon her romantic view of her mother and father and their relationship. "Sam had wanted to believe there was something magic between them that had created her and validated their love. But teen-age romances weren't very significant, she realized now." When they discuss the war, MawMaw says, "They wrote and told what a help he was to his country. I take comfort in that." And Sam replies, "What good did he do for the country? Everybody knows it was a stupid war, but fifty-eight thousand guys died. Emmett says they all died for nothing." MawMaw responds, "Well, Emmett can talk. He didn't die. Dwayne was fighting for a cause.…"
MawMaw's idealized version of the war is destroyed when Sam reads her father's diary which MawMaw has given her. One entry describes finding a dead Vietnamese and taking his teeth as a good luck charm. Another describes getting revenge for a dead comrade by finding "gooks" and making "gook puddin'." Sam perceives the war and her father newly: "Now everything seemed … like something rotten."
It is this feeling of corruptness which spurs Sam's going in country. At Cawood's pond Sam continues to think about the war and to look for the egret Emmett searches for. She survives the night in the swamp and is preparing to leave when she hears a noise, "a V.C. rapist-terrorist.… But this was real. A curious pleasure stole over her. This terror was what the soldiers had felt every minute.… They were completely alive, every nerve on edge.… It was a new way of seeing." At last Sam is beginning to understand why men fight. The noise is Emmett coming to find her.… He chides Sam for frightening him by running away, and her reply suggests that the war was the national equivalent of a child's running away.…
Sam also tells Emmett she hates her father for "the way he talked about gooks and killing." Emmett replies, "It's the same for all of us!… You can't do what we did and then be happy about it. And nobody lets you forget it."
Emmett loses control of his emotions; he weeps and talks about Vietnam and tells Sam, "There's something wrong with me. I'm damaged. It's like something in the center of my heart is gone and I can't get it back." Sam replies, "But you cared enough about me to come out here."
It is at this point that Mason's bird symbol is used most effectively. Sam says, "I wish that bird would come," and Emmett explains, "If you can think about something like birds, you can get outside of yourself, and it doesn't hurt as much. That's the whole idea. That's the whole challenge for the human race." As Emmett walks out of the swamp, Sam observes, "He seemed to float away, above the poison ivy, like a pond skimmer, beautiful in his flight." Emmett has become the bird which they both wished to see—he is a symbol of the beauty and life to be found in human relationships.
Sam emerges from the wilderness reconciled to the reality of her father's killing and dying, and affirming Emmett's wholeness. Still, some conflicts remain to be resolved.…
Emmett urges Sam, still dazed from her trip in country, to make the trip to Washington and invites MawMaw to go with them. Sam loves the freedom symbolized by being on the road, and, although she has first been intolerant of MawMaw's country ways, she realizes what a restricted Me her grandmother has lived, and she sympathizes with the old woman's struggle to cope with a world she has never experienced before.
When the family arrives at the memorial each member experiences a healing.…
Reading and touching Dwayne's name on the wall, MawMaw feels a greater sense of unity with him; Emmett ends his grieving for his lost comrades, and Sam accepts the inevitable tragedy of war.…
Finding an answer to her questions about the war, Sam finds a new sense of self. Sam's quests have prepared her for a promising future.
Source: Sandra Bonilla Durham, "Women and War: Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country" in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 45-52.
Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., "Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 20-33.
Michael Dorris, "Bonds of Love," in Chicago Tribune— Books, June 26, 1988, p. 6.
Nicci Gerard, "Love Among the Pumpkins," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 2, No. 79, December 8, 1989, p. 34.
Richard Giannone, "Bobbie Ann Mason and the Recovery of Mystery," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 553-66.
Thomas Morrissey, "Mason's In Country," in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 62-4.
James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Where The Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1990, St. Martin's Press, 1991.
David Y. Todd, "Love Life," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, May-June, 1989, pp. 2, 20.
Douglas Welsh, The History of the Vietnam War, Exeter Books, 1981.
Tom Wells, The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam, University of California Press, 1994.
David Booth, "Sam's Quest, Emmett's Wound: Grail Motifs in Bobbie Ann Mason's Portrait of America After Vietnam," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 98-109.
Booth argues that elements of the Arthurian grail legend including the motif of the wasteland and the wounded king figure in In Country.
Joel Osler Brende and Erwin Randolph Parson, Vietnam Veterans: The Road to Recovery, Plenum Press, 1985.
Published at the same time as In Country, this book raises some of the same concerns as Mason's novel. It is because of books like these that veterans are not shunned today as much as they were in 1985.
Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., "Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary Southern Literature," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 20-33.
Brinkmeyer explores the how Sam's pursuit of her own history and the history of the Vietnam War ultimately lead to her own personal growth.
Joel Conarroe, "Winning Her Father's War," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1985, p. 7.
Conarroe reads In Country as a coming-of-age story in which Sam moves through traditional "rites of passage, progressing from separation to isolation … and finally to integration.
Wayne Gunn Drewey, "Initiation, Individuation, In Country" in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1, Autumn, 1996, pp. 59-73.
Drewey argues that In Country uses as its structure the journey motif with a difference: in the case of Sam Hughes, the hero is a female.
James R. Ebert, A Life In A Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965-1972, Presidio Press, 1993.
Oddly, for all of the books written by and about veterans, there are few that try to capture the perspective of the "grunt" soldiers. This book does a thorough, intelligent job of mixing interviews with synopses in order to capture the experience as well as any book can.
Arthur Egendorf, Healing From The War: Trauma and Transformation after Vietnam, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985.
Another book published the same year the same year as In Country, this book reads like a "self-help" or "pop psychology" book; the tone may be a little lighter than many academic studies, but that approach is necessary sometimes in order for ordinary people to understand the effects of the experience.
W. D. Ehrhart, "Who's Responsible," in Vietnam Generation, Vol. 4, No. 1-2, Spring, 1992, pp. 95-100.
Vietnam War poet Ehrhart discusses his contributions to In Country and offers a sympathetic and thorough analysis of the novel.
Michiko Kakutani, in The New York Times, September 4, 1985, p. C20.
The reviewer credits Mason with a sure ear for teenaged dialogue and her clear sense of a "a young woman's craving for both knowledge and innocence."
Jeffrey P. Kimball, To Reason Why: The Debate About the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War, Temple University Press, 1990.
Not much is made in this novel about why America was involved in Vietnam at all, but this is certainly a factor that affected how servicemen were treated when they returned home, and what they thought of themselves as they grew up and began to understand the nature of politics.
Katherine Kinney, " 'Humping the Boonies': Sex, Combat, and the Female in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country," in Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 38-48.
Kinney discusses how Sam attempts to transcend gender differences so that she can understand the meaning of the Vietnam War.
Tom Myers, Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam, Oxford University Press, 1988.
This is not a collection of stories about the Vietnam experience, as the title suggests, but an academic examination of the narratives about the war. Chapters like "The Memoir as 'Wise Endurance" and "The Writer as Alchemist" look objectively at the Vietnam stories as a sub-genre of literature.
Harriet Pollack, "From Shiloh to In Country to Feather Crowns, in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 95-117.
Pollack examines the role of history in Mason's writing and particularly the role of southem women's history.
Barbara T. Ryan, "Decentered Authority in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country," in Critique, Vol. 31, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 199-212.
Ryan examines Sam's use of available texts as a way of explaining her search for truth.
Jeffrey Walsh, American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam, St. Martin's Press, 1982.
This overview of literary themes that have touched war experiences and been touched by them in this century is a good reminder to readers that no piece of writing, no matter how well researched or how realistic, is ever objective.
Kim Willenson, with the correspondents of Newsweek, The Bad War: An Oral History of Vietnam, New American Library, 1987.
This book's shocking title, reflecting just the sort of hostility faced by Emmett and the other veterans in In Country, is actually a reference to a better-known book, Studs Turkel's 1985 The Good War, which is a collection of interviews with veterans of World War II.
Jonathan Yardley, "Bobbie Ann Mason and the Shadow of Vietnam," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 8, 1985, p. 3.
The reviewer faults Mason for using cliches and for failing to say anything new about the Vietnam War in her novel.