In the Lake of the Woods


Tim O’Brien

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In the Lake of the Woods Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tim O’Brien's In the Lake of the Woods. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien was born in 1946 in Austin, Minnesota, but he spent most of his childhood in the neighboring city of Worthington, Minnesota. Growing up, he showed great interest in nature and travel, two themes that echo throughout his novels and short stories. O’Brien studied political science in college. In 1968, shortly after graduating, he was drafted into the army and deployed to Vietnam, where he served for nearly two years. O’Brien was a member of the division that was involved in the infamous My Lai Massacre, although O’Brien himself arrived in Vietnam almost a year after this incident occurred. Following his military service, he studied writing at Harvard University. In 1973, he began his career as a writer by publishing the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. The book received a small but impressive amount of critical acclaim, and has been called the best book ever written about Vietnam. O’Brien continued to write novels, including Going After Cacciato, and short stories throughout the 70s and 80s, most of which either revolved around or alluded to the Vietnam War. In the 80s, he was also an activist for better treatment of military veterans, and criticized the American government’s military action overseas. In 1990, O’Brien published the book for which he’s best know, The Things They Carried. A collection of short stories about Vietnam, many of which O’Brien had written and published in the previous decade, the book received great acclaim, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Since 1990, O’Brien has published three novels: In the Lake of the Woods, Tomcat in Love, and July, July, the latter two of which are much lighter in tone than his previous works.
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Historical Context of In the Lake of the Woods

The central historical event of In the Lake of the Woods is the Vietnam War. Between the late 1950s and the mid 1970s, the United States gave military and financial aid to its allies in South Vietnam to prevent South Vietnam from falling under the control of Communist forces, known as the Vietcong, which were based in North Vietnam and were led by Ho Chi Minh. Under the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, the United States deployed tens of thousands of troops to Vietnam and waged chemical warfare on the land of Vietnam itself by dropping millions of pounds of bombs and napalm into its forests. During this time, many in the United States came to oppose America’s involvement in Vietnam, protesting outside the White House and, in 1968, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1968, news of the Mai Lai Massacre reached the United States. It was shown that American troops massacred a village of unarmed civilians, including women and babies, and abused Vietnamese women before murdering them. All of these events are alluded to in In the Lake of the Woods, and some, such as the My Lai Massacre, are central to the plot. O’Brien also discusses the treatment of Vietnam veterans, and criticizes the lack of compassion and understanding the American public showed when dealing with veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other Books Related to In the Lake of the Woods

One of the most interesting qualities of In the Lake of the Woods is its unreliable narrator. At many points, the narrator acknowledges that he’s distorted the facts to tell a better story, and cites sources about how all writers do this. There are many postmodern novels with unreliable narrators; some of these, like In the Lake of the Woods, blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by citing real sources alongside fictitious ones. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and John Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996) conduct similar experiments with narration and objectivity. It’s also worth mentioning Dispatches (1977) by Michael Herr, another journalistic novel that treats the war in Vietnam as a collection of fragments that can’t be put together.
Key Facts about In the Lake of the Woods
  • Full Title: In the Lake of the Woods
  • Where Written: Austin, Texas and Worthington, Minnesota
  • When Published: January 1995
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: The novel is hard to classify, but it features elements of the historical novel, the war novel, and the mystery novel.
  • Setting: Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, and Vietnam
  • Point of View: The novel moves between many points of view. There are third person limited chapters, in which the narrator describes events from the characters’ points of view. There are also chapters of evidence, and footnotes in which the narrator speaks in the first person.

Extra Credit for In the Lake of the Woods

Dedicated teaching: Though he hasn’t published a book in more than a decade, O’Brien is far from retired. He continues to serve as the MFA chair at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Major awards: Tim O’Brien has won many awards for his writing and journalism. In 1978, he won the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato, a novel of Vietnam. He’s also won the Pritzker Military Library Literature Prize of 100,000 dollars.