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Nick Rompa

Section 28


Tim O’brien’s “On the Rainy River is a true story told by a 41 year old of his life at the age of 21. The fact that O’brien is writing this 20 years later adds a new aspect to the story. He describes himself as a young man with the world in his back pocket. O’brien has just graduated from Macalester College and has a free ride to Harvard. Unfortunately, his storybook world collapses when he receives a draft notice for the Vietnam war, a war that he has “taken a modest stand against”(44) in 1968.

Upon receiving his draft notice, O’brien was thrown into a world of what he calls “moral confusion”(44). As a 21 year-old, he follows every rule put forth in front of him, even though he says “he couldn’t tolerate authority”(45). If O’brien didn’t follow authority, though, he never would have been successful. This is one of the causes of his moral confusion. O’Brien has never had to make moral testing decisions in his life, like whether to face his family or to run to Canada. Another cause for his moral confusion was his stand on the war. He thought it was wrong for numerous reasons, such as not knowing why they were fighting. O’Brien would have gladly fought in a war that he believed in but the draft board didn’t let him choose his war. All of these pressures came down to whether he would be the conformist of the past or believe in what he thought was right.

All of the pressures built up and something inside of him cracked. He left a note for his parents and took off for the American-Canadian border; first driving north from his hometown and then west, finally ending up at the Tip Top Lodge on the Rainy River. He stopped here to try and organize his thoughts and make his decision, or at least that is what he thought he was doing. He was actually trying to stall the inevitable. At the Tip Top Lodge he met Elroy Berdhal, “the man who saved me”(50). Berdhal seemed to know exactly what O’Brien needed. He gave him small tasks like chopping wood and didn’t talk to him about sensitive topics like why he was there. One of the most captivating moments of the story is when Berdhal takes O’Brien fishing on the Rainy River, which is actually the divider between his two lives. Berdhal takes the boat within meters of the Canadian shore, brining O’Brien to attempt to answer the question, swim to freedom or return home and fight. He thinks that he actually has a choice in this matter, but there really is now way that he could have jumped even with all the motivation in the world. His mind isn’t mentally prepared to make such a decision. He then knew, so close to freedom that “Canada had become a pitiful fantasy. Silly and hopeless. It was no longer a possibility”(59). So he went home the next day, eventually heading off to Vietnam, not even getting to say good bye to the man who in the next 20 years would grow to become the most influential man in his past.

Embarrassment is O’Brien’s downfall. He would imagine all of the citizens in his hometown gossiping about his lack of patriotism and he couldn’t even imagine telling his parents that he dodged the draft. His life of following the will of others led him to have overwhelming feelings of embarrassment that blurred his ability to see what he should have done. The most powerful line in the entire story is the last, which reads “I was a coward, I went to war”(63). He knew that he was a coward for not fleeing to Canada and doing what was right because the fog of moral confusion was lifted of him. By fighting in the Vietnam war, he could clearly see what he could not when he was 21; that following his heart was what he should have done.

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