Despite hints deployed in the narrative, the narrator of In the Lake of the Woods ultimately refuses the reader a conclusive answer regarding the fate of John and Kathy Wade. How is this refusal significant to the novel’s exploration of American history?
This assignment asked us to find parallels between the persistent concealment in Tim O’ Brien’s novel, In The Lake of the Woods, and America’s history of concealed violence. The novel pivots around the disappearance of the protagonist’s wife, Kathy, and the mystery which engulfs this event is the main driving force of the narrative. America’s compulsion to conceal violence, in its wars, genocide and colonisation, is framed as an implied macrocosm to the microcosm of the protagonist’s concealed trauma. While I found the non-linear Postmodernist form of the novel, predominantly the ‘Hypothesis’ and ‘Evidence’ chapters, extremely helpful in formulating ideas about the protagonist’s connection to the nature of American history, Turner’s ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ was instrumental in knowing about the narrative’s wider context. Consulting with O’Brien’s other novel which shares the same thematic concerns, The Things They Carried, was helpful in understanding the centrality of the author’s intentions to critique America and the Vietnam War. Despite the novel’s heavy air of mystery and concealment, I concluded that the narrative is a potent critique of America’s tendency to suppress, cover up and subsequently create trauma in its parallel between historical concealment and the protagonist’s own history of violence. The vagueness which surrounds the various explanations offered as to what happened to Kathy is a Postmodernist trope with a highly effective function in this narrative context as it challenges the reader to deconstruct historical meta-narratives in the attempt to discern the truth, no matter how much it jars with established conventions.