The most obvious symbol in In the Lake of the Woods
(so obvious it’s in the title) is the lake itself. Throughout the book, we’re told that Lake of the Woods is big and complex—so complex that it’s possible to search it for months and never find what one’s looking for. Later, we’re told that in Lake of the Woods, things are neither entirely present nor entirely absent. Focusing on the latter observation, we can speculate that the lake symbolizes the past: the traumatic secrets, big and small, that all the characters of the novel hide. John
’s traumatic experiences in Vietnam haunt him for years afterwards. He sometimes thinks that they’ll never entirely go away because they almost felt like dreams to begin with. This is a well-documented reaction to trauma: the events are so shocking and unprecedented that the mind doesn’t know what to do with them, whether at the moment when they happen or in subsequent years. In this sense, the fact that the contents of the lake are neither entirely present nor absent is an apt metaphor for John’s — and the other characters’ — troubled relationship with the past. It’s also worth noting that the lake, with its vast dimensions and complex interior is quite a lot like the novel itself: a puzzle that can never be solved.