BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG
For the next two months, in messenger bags, backpacks, briefcases and purses, Homer readers will be carrying cell phones, laptop computers, gum, cough drops, wallets, faded photographs, thumb drives, lip stick and lip balm, gloves, pens, pencils, notepads, worry beads, rosaries, sea glass, beach stones, and, oh yeah, a thin little novel about the Vietnam War. Among the things they will carry is “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s 1990 novel.
Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program, the Friends of the Homer Library sponsors a community wide reading of O’Brien’s novel. The Big Read starts at 6 p.m. Jan. 18 with a kick-off event, “Revisit the Sixties,” and culminates with a talk by O’Brien on March 1 at the Mariner Theatre. As part of the Big Read, the Homer Public Library has bought 75 copies of “The Things They Carried,” with 12 in circulation and the rest available on loan with no due date. You don’t even need a library card to check it out.
This is the second Big Read Homer has done, and the second where an author has visited as part of the program. Author Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” was done as a Big Read in 2007, with Tan visiting as the keynote speaker that year for the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference.
The idea of the Big Read is to reinvigorate the role of literature in American culture and get people reading again for entertainment and pleasure. Applicants can choose from 30 books on the Big Read list. Erin Hollowell, the Friends of the Homer Library coordinator who wrote the Big Read grant, said the Friends of the Library board chose “The Things They Carried” to reach out to a demographic: teenage boys and young men in their 20s.
“A lot of it had to do with appealing to an audience we might be missing at the library,” Hollowell said.
That’s also the demographic of many of the characters in O’Brien’s novel, the grunts of America’s longest war. Published in 1990, “The Things They Carried” is O’Brien’s fifth book and fourth novel about Vietnam and war. Now 66, O’Brien got drafted at age 23 after graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., with a bachelor of arts in political science. He served a tour of duty from 1969-70 with the U.S. Army 46th Infantry in Quang Ngai province, some of the time in My Lai a year after the infamous massacre. He was sent home after getting a shrapnel wound from a grenade attack.
Part of a generation of Vietnam War veteran writers that includes Philip Caputo, Joe Haldeman and Karl Marlantes, O’Brien was one of the first combat vets to write about the war. His memoir, “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home,” came out in 1973, the same year as the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, the agreement that ended hostilities in Vietnam.
With the 40th anniversary on Jan. 27 of that peace agreement, reading “The Things They Carried” might give young people an understanding of a bitter war that has shaped American wars ever since. Hollowell said when she was a high school English teacher in Cordova and taught “The Things They Carried,” students told her, “They don’t even teach about the Vietnam War in school.”
In Homer, “The Things They Carried” will be read by Flex School students, juniors at Homer High School and advanced placement students. One new book group already has borrowed 10 copies of the novel.
“There’s a wide cross section of folks who are going to read it,” Hollowell said.
Part of why “The Things They Carried” stands out as a Vietnam War novel is its narrative structure. Characters with the same name as real people — like a “Tim O’Brien” — appear in the novel along with made-up characters.
“It’s total metafiction,” Hollowell said. “What’s truth? What’s story? That to me is the interesting thing about the novel.”
Hollowell said she considered it a bonus that the Friends of the Library was able to get O’Brien to visit Homer. “An elusive cat,” she called O’Brien. He has no agent, isn’t affiliated with a university and doesn’t have an internet presence of his own. She finally tracked him down by sending him letters through three of his publishers.
“He kind of appreciated that I was willing,” Hollowell said. “He said, ‘You’re persistent.’ I said, ‘I kinda am.’”
As part of his visit, O’Brien also teaches a master writing class to high school and college writing students. Before his visit, there are numerous events tied into the Big Read, including documentary films about Vietnam, a lecture series, an art workshop and a reader’s theater by Pier One Theatre actors. The kick-off event on Jan. 18 is designed to be a little light hearted because “The rest of it is not going to be,” Hollowell said.
As part of the Big Read, Hollowell also wants to include local Vietnam War veterans — a group often reluctant to speak about their war experience. She’s been reaching out to veterans groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars but so far without success. That’s an important story to tell, too.
“What is the long term effect of being in a war situation and having to come back and live your life?” Hollowell asked. “What is it like to come back?”
KBBI public radio also will be recording 3-minute stories by locals, and not necessarily about Vietnam or the 1960s. Some will be broadcast. People interested in signing up for that or who want to participate in other Big Read events can contact Hollowell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.