?In Country? By Bobbie Ann Mason Essay, Research Paper
In the novel “In Country” by Bobbie Ann Mason, we find the story of a young girl who struggles in life to find out about her father and the history of the Vietnam War. Throughout the book, the reader finds out that this girl, Sam Hughes, is not your every day teenager. She is faced with the responsibility of dealing with her unmotivated uncle and a boyfriend she really doesn’t care for anymore. She’s confronted with the fact that she really knows nothing about her father and the War he took part in. All of the people she knows who were involved in Vietnam have been touched somehow by the war. What are some of the things she learns from these people? What does she find out about herself and about the father she has never even met? Sam’s search for information about her father and his War concludes instead with the discovery of herself. A step towards seeking out the truth about a man who has been a phantom to her throughout her life becomes a step towards helping her find the truth about herself.
In the beginning of the novel, Sam sees her father as something that can only be contained in a picture. She tucks a picture of him into a mirror frame in her room and tries to imagine what he could be like. However, the picture doesn’t give her any answers – “The soldier boy in the picture never changed. In a way that made him dependable. But he seemed so innocent” (p 66). She struggles to imagine what it would be like trying to tell her dad of all the things he had missed out on. Like a child talking to its stuffed animals, she talks to the picture as if it were alive. “ ‘You missed Watergate,’ Sam said to the picture.” (p. 67). She wants to make her father a more personal figure in her life instead of just a photo she has seen hundreds of times before.
Television gives Sam another look at some situations that her dad must have faced in Vietnam. It has the power to bring scenes of the war into her living room. Sam remembers when her family bought its first color television set. Because her mom became upset when Emmett told his war stories, TV was one of the things that fed Sam’s imagination. She had always relied on the pictures in her mind to help her see what Vietnam was like, but when they got a TV, Vietnam became a real place to her for the very first time (p 51). She and Emmett watch M*A*S*H episodes almost non-stop, and Sam makes an association between the made-up drama and the real life battles. However, she realizes that these shows, while appealing, are just fantasy. Although the TV death of Colonel Henry Blake seems more real to her than the death of her own father (p. 25), the fact that she begins to explore the historical events of Vietnam show that the television texts have failed to satisfy her inner need. Even though she’s far from discovering the truth, she’s one step closer to seeing who her father really was. However, she needs a more authentic and personalized model.
Sam finds that more personal model in the veterans she talks to around Hopewell. In her first encounters with the vets, however, she meets with a puzzling inability (or refusal) to speak – “Anyone who survived Vietnam seemed to regard it as something personal and embarrassing” (p. 67). Even if the vets do talk about the war, their stories rarely mesh. Some want to ignore the past – some want to glorify it. Some tell her to stop looking for something she can never fully understand. Because their voices conflict, Sam feels that they can’t be held as reliable sources of the truth that she desires.
Another source of information about her dad is her family. Irene is hesitant to talk about her first husband. First she tells Sam, “I was married to him for one month before he left, and I never saw him again…I hardly even remember him” (p. 167). She also displays some bitterness about the war and tells Sam not to make it out like it was a happy time (p. 236). Emmett is also reluctant to talk, but he doesn’t display the same anger as her mom. He is silent because it’s his way of loving Sam and protecting her. He tells her, “you can’t learn from the past. The main thing you learn from history is that you can’t learn from history. That’s what history is” (p. 226). Sam’s grandparents, on the other hand, are generous with their memories of their son. Their recollections show the inescapable force of desire in narrative, for they speak of a son they are proud to remember even though that might not be how he perceived himself. Sam recognizes that their loving memory and Irene’s negation result in a distorted representation. The “facts” she obtains are corrupted by absence and ignorance. How, then, is she to find the truth about her father?
Sam begins to unravel more to the mystery when her mother allows her to read her father’s letters. While reading the letters, Sam is filled with a sense of disappointment – partly because he leaves out details that she believes are essential. She feels like he’s hiding something from her (p. 182). However, she realizes that the most likely reason for keeping the details out of his letters is that he wants to protect Irene from the horrors of the war. The letters are not complete, and therefore cannot be trusted as a absolute value of truth.
A more complete version of the war and a more detailed look into the life of her father is found in the diary her grandparents give her to read. She finds that her father is not the Dwayne in the diary, not the same man she read about in the letters, nor is he the same person she heard about from her family. Sam hopes that the diary will share more personal insights, and it does just that. The diary exposes more about her father than she could have ever wanted to know. In it, Dwayne reveals the soul-shattering experiences from which he has shielded his family. Sam sees for the first time her father’s fear, hatred, confusion, ignorance; his companions, his smoking, drinking, and cursing, and she finds it disturbing (pp. 201-205). This is not the man her grandparents remember: the one who was so thoughtful and who never took a drink and never smoked (p.196). Nor is he the heroic icon of her imagination. In fact, his diary disgusts her. She is ashamed of him and even tells Emmett that she hates him (p. 221). She is shocked to find that the lost and frustrated voice from the diary is the voice of her father. When Sam discovers that her hero-father gives way to a frightened country boy, she recoils at what she thought she had been seeking. Unable to believe in the father that had seemed to promise her security and certainty, she feels spiritually and emotionally on her own.
As a result of this revelation, however, Sam now must consciously become her own authority. She will validate her father’s words by living it out in the real world. She decides that the only way to truly know her father is, in Pete’s words, to “hump the boonies” (p. 136). She heads to Cawood’s Pond to live the life portrayed in the diary. In an attempt to affirm the voice of her father, she tries to follow in his footsteps. She tries to understand through an encounter with what is real to her. Sam camps out in the swamp to find her own reality. In one sense, she finally recognizes her own experience as a useful standard of personal truth – the only truth there is.
What does Sam learn from her experiences in the swamp? She learns that she will never really know her father – never really learn from him. The things that happened to her in the swamp, while being real to her, were not what happened in Vietnam, no matter how hard she tried to believe it. Yet as a result of her night on her own, Sam is even more aware of her father and her loss. She’s finally truly feeling his death for the first time (p.229). Now, at long last, Sam is able to confront the truth of her loss, the authority of her experience, and the effect that Vietnam had on her life. This is why she and Emmett go to the War Memorial. She and her father share a surname. They are related, but they are different, too. In her solitude, Sam has begun to realize the value of her personal role in the production of meaning, truth, and self.