Lake of the Woods is the perfect getaway. Tim O’Brien’s novel is set, in part, in that little bit of land, connected to Manitoba, and separated by the lake from the state of Minnesota of which it is actually a part.

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… an old yellow cottage in the timber at the edge of Lake of the Woods. There were many trees, mostly pine and birch, and there was the dock and the boathouse and the narrow dirt road that came through the forest and ended in polished gray rocks at the shore below the cottage. Then there were no roads at all. There were no towns and no people. Beyond the dock the big lake opened northward into Canada, where the water was everything, vast and very cold, and where there were secret channels and portages and bays and tangled forests and islands without names.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where the reader learns something about the history, people and/or geography of the state. Right now we are in Minnesota.

The major feature of the setting of O’Brien’s book In the Lake of the Woods is the maze of lakes and islands that make up the area, and it’s a feature that shows up in several of our other Minnesota reads (Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers and These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich). According to the state’s license plates, Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but according to this Wikipedia page listing the state’s lakes, Minnesota actually has closer to 12,000 lakes that are over 10 acres in area (and close to 22,000 over 2.5 acres).

The wilderness was massive. It was a place, Wade came to understand, where lost was a rule of thumb. The water here was the water there. Nothing in particular, all in general. Forests folded into forests, sky swallowed sky. The solitude bent back on itself. Everywhere was nowhere. It was perfect unity, perfect oneness, the flat mirroring waters giving off exact copies of other copies, everything in multiples, everything hypnotic and blue and meaningless, always the same. Here, Wade decided, was where the vanished things go. The dropped nickels. The needles in haystacks.

The novel drifts back and forth between timelines and from Minnesota to Vietnam, where the main character saw combat and was involved in what we, in America, refer to as the My Lai Massacre.

I don’t know how many reviews I saw, complaining that O’Brien isn’t forthcoming about the link between the Vietnam massacre he discusses (Thuan Yen) and My Lai, but it’s actually very clearly stated in several places and ways that they are the same, with the explanation that there are multiple names for both the events and the locations: “The subhamlet identified on the topographic map as My Lai is actually named Thuan Yen.”

This is not, technically, true, as far as I could discover without being able to speak or read Vietnamese. (If one searches for Thuan Yen, there is a link to a Wikipedia page in Vietnamese, which, if translated, is about a musician.) I suspect the use of “Thuan Yen” instead of “My Lai” is either a way to fictionalize the events so that O’Brien can write his story, or an obscuring of the facts to muddy the record–in much the same way Sorcerer magics away his own participation–or a bit of both. But despite the name change, it’s very clear that they are the same.

O’Brien further muddies (and clarifies) the record by telling the story as if it is a report put together by some sort of investigator, complete with notes on this person’s personal research, interview snippets and a summary/afterword.

At the Son My Memorial, which I visited in the course of research for this book, the number [of civilian casualties] is fixed at 504. An amazing experience, by the way. Thuan Yen is still a quiet little farming village, very poor, very remote, with dirt paths and cow dung and high bamboo hedgerows. Very friendly, all things considered: the old folks nod and smile; the children giggle at our white foreign faces. The ditch is still there. I found it easily. Just five or six feet deep, shallow and unimposing, yet it was as if I had been there before, in my dreams, or in some other life.

Reviewers also complained about the ambiguity of the ending–what really happened to Kathy?–but, again, I think it fits with the ambiguity of what really happened in Thuan Yen/My Lai. As it happens, These Granite Islands has a similar mystery–what happened to Catherine and her lover?–but Stonich chooses to answer the question. I found the resolution somewhat less satisfying, and it seemed to me that Isobel did as well–she seemed to prefer the romantic fable she had imagined.

I actually enjoyed the alternate endings O’Brien gives, and they had some of the best descriptions of the mazelike waterways of Lake of the Woods:

Here and there she passed little islands with forests pushing up flush against the shoreline, purely wild, too isolated for lumbering, everything thick and firm to her eye. The water itself seemed solid, and the sky, and the autumn air. … All around her, things were dense with color. … A golden September day, fresh-feeling, crisp and new, and everything was part of everything else. It all blended into a smooth repetitive oneness, the trees and coves and water and sky, each piece of wilderness identical to every other piece.

Overall, this was a wonderful addition to our list for Minnesota books–the descriptions of the convoluted waterways are fantastic–and the storyline about My Lai from the perspective of a Vietnam combat veteran (and his PTSD) is interesting and compelling. I would still recommend The Things They Carried if you are looking for one book to read about Vietnam, but for our reading challenge and getting to know more about Minnesota, In the Lake of the Woods was a winner.

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