In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien

Twice a year my book club invites all of our husbands to join us in a monthly meeting.  We pick a book of appeal to everyone, have a pot luck meal, bring lots of liquor and basically have a party.  We’ve been doing this for a few years now.  My husband always looks forward to it, and it pushes him to read a book from start to finish.

Choosing a book that suits men and women is a difficult task and our host usually takes her responsibility quote seriously.  She’s chosen various authors from Hemingway to Potok.  The guys get really into it, and over time, more and more of them actually read the book.  The discussions are heated, emotional, serious, funny.

Tonight we discussed a 1994 novel, In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien.  The book chronicles the rise and fall of Vietnam veteran-turned politician John Wade and his wife, Kathy. After secrets from his past surface during an election, his career abruptly ends. They seek refuge in a cabin on Lake of the Woods, a remote wilderness area in Minnesota.

During Vietnam, John Wade witnessed and was involved in major atrocities.  The secrets are so horrific that he buries them deep and never reveals to them to anyone, not even Kathy.  As the past wreaks havoc on John’s career, marriage, and mind, she suddenly disappears without a trace, never to be found again.  Her disappearance is a mystery, and the book provides clues and facts, as well as several hypothesis, for the reader to surmise what actually happens.  Did he murder her?  Or did she just leave on her own accord?  Did they fake her death for the world to see and meet up after forever to be left alone?  The book leaves it up to the reader to decide.

Our host’s husband created a chart that we had to fill out before the discussion started.  We had a few choices determining Kathy’s fate: murder, accident, escape, runaway.  We also had to determine what happened to John at the book’s conclusion.  The group was split.  Some people thought John was deranged and definitely killed Kathy.  Most of my fellow book club members are former lawyers and had problems with this scenario due to lack of evidence.  Some thought Kathy got tired of John’s lies and ran off.  No one really thought that she killed herself.  We all felt that his love for her was very intense.  But did his past turn him into a violent killer?  Or had she just had enough?

O’Brien brings in a lot of evidence that he outlines in several chapters: quotes from his mother about his difficult relationship with his father, who was a drunk and killed himself when John was a child; Kathy’s sister and co-workers, who all don’t believe that she would do anything to herself nor disappear; John’s campaign manager who gave on him after the secrets came out; his fellow commanders in Vietnam who called him “the Sorcerer”.  He includes quotes about other famous politicians who were damaged by the Vietnam War like Nixon and Wilson.  But it’s pretty impossible to enter John’s head and we were all pretty blitzed by the end of the discussion.

Once again, I’m so glad that my book club chose a book that I would never have picked up on my own. only because I’d never heard of this book.  I would definitely recommend it to anyone.  Just bear in mind that it’s heavy…and very disturbing.

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