Lyman Lamartine was the first to own a convertible on the reservation. He had bought it together with his brother, Henry, Jr. Lyman has always been good at earning money, and when he was just 15, he got a job as a dish boy at the Joliet Café. He worked his way up to busboy and then manager, and by the time he was 16, he owned the café. That year, the worst tornado in North Dakota history blew through town and trashed the café. Structurally, the building was a total loss, and Lyman got a sizable insurance payout—in his mother, Lulu’s, name of course.
Lyman Lamartine represents the connection between the Lamartines and Kashpaws. Lyman is technically a Kashpaw, and Lulu claims this is where he gets his sound money sense, as the Kashpaws have always been successful.
Lyman wasted much of the money, and then he saw the car. He was on a ride up to Winnipeg with Henry, and in Lyman’s pocket was the last of the insurance money. When they saw the Oldsmobile with the “FOR SALE” sign in the window, they couldn’t believe it. Henry had two weeks’ worth of pay in his pocket, and along with Lyman’s money, it would be just enough to buy the car and gas money home. So they did.
Lyman and Henry’s shared convertible is symbolic of their connection as brothers—they buy the car together and then further bond as they restore it together. Henry and Lyman’s Oldsmobile also represents the influence of white, European culture on Native identities. The car is a product of technology brought to America by white settlers, but the Oldsmobile is undoubtedly an important part of Henry and Lyman’s lives, which suggests Native culture and identity is, by necessity, imbued with this obvious influence.
Somewhere in Montana, Lyman and Henry saw a Native American girl hitchhiking. They pulled up alongside of her in the Oldsmobile and told her to get in. They asked her where she was headed, and when she said Alaska, Lyman and Henry decided to drive her anyway. It was in Alaska in 1970 that Henry remembered that he had signed up to join the army, so he went off to Vietnam. Lyman doesn’t know much about Henry’s time in Vietnam, except that he was captured by the enemy not long after he arrived.
As Henry was captured as a prisoner of war within days of arriving in Vietnam, it is safe to assume that his experience was a traumatizing one. The brothers’ impromptu trip to Alaska, made possible by the car, is a pleasant memory for Lyman, and it enabled him to grow closer with Henry, Jr. before he went off to Vietnam, after which Henry is never the same.
Lyman writes Henry many letters while he is in Vietnam and tells him about the convertible, which he keeps in the yard up on blocks. Lyman is lucky and is never drafted, but when Henry comes home in 1974, he is a completely different man. Lyman notices that Henry is “jumpy and mean,” and he is withdrawn and distant. Lulu doesn’t know what to do. She can take Henry to the Native American doctor on the reservation, but she doesn’t trust old Moses Pillager. Moses is jealous of Lulu’s husbands, and she fears he will take it out on Henry. The white man’s doctor is out of the question, too, since they will probably keep him and refuse to let him go.
The novel implies that Henry is “jumpy and mean” because he is suffering from posttraumatic stress. The war has been horrific, and he was likely mistreated as a prisoner of war, and Henry is struggling to cope with his experiences. Lulu’s fear that the white man’s doctor will place Henry in an institution or mental hospital and reflects the racism present in American society. Presumably, Lulu worries that Henry will automatically be institutionalized because he is Native American.
Lyman looks out to the Oldsmobile and knows exactly what to do. He takes a hammer and smashes the tail pipe and muffler. He rips the muffler loose from the under carriage and stands back to inspect his work. The car looks even worse than the average “Indian car,” and he waits for Henry to notice it. Henry finally notices the car over a month later, and suddenly, Henry is talking again. Lyman spends the next several days helping his brother fix the Oldsmobile. When it is finally done, Henry turns to his brother and tells him it is time to take it for a ride.
Henry and Lyman get into the Oldsmobile and head toward the Red River. Henry wants to see the high water, he says, and the drive is pleasant through the breathtaking spring landscape. When they arrive, the river is rushing, full of winter trash. Henry hands Lyman the keys and tells him to keep the car outright. Lyman refuses. He doesn’t want the car, he says. They argue back and forth other over who should keep the car, but they are soon laughing. Looking at the rising river, Lyman suggests they go back. They can even find some Kashpaw girls, he says. Henry shakes his head. The Kashpaw girls are “crazy,” he claims, “every damn one of them.”
Telling Lyman that the Kashpaw girls are “crazy, every damn one of them,” is Henry’s way of keeping Lyman away from the Kashpaw girls, since they are technically his relations. Henry has just recently had his encounter with Albertine, who is one of the Kashpaw girls, and it is doubtful that he thinks she is “crazy,” especially since he was the one to break down during their night spent together.
Lyman reminds Henry that they are the “crazy Lamartine boys,” but Henry isn’t ready to go back just yet. Henry stands up and heads for the water. He has to cool off, he says, and jumps in the river. He tells Lyman that his boots are filling with water, and his head slips below the water’s surface. Lyman waits just a moment and then jumps in behind him.
Ironically, Lyman is not a Lamartine boy, and while Henry, Jr. is, his father is Beverly, not Henry Lamartine. Just as Nector does earlier in the book, Henry goes to the water to, in a way, cleanse himself, even if Henry’s approach is much more extreme.
By the time Lyman pulls himself out of the water, the sun has already set. He goes to the Oldsmobile, turns on the high beams, and drives it higher up the river’s bank. Putting the car in first gear, Lyman takes his foot off the clutch and quickly gets out of the car. The car plunges into the river below, and Lyman watches until the lights finally disappear into the darkness.
By crashing the car into the river, Lyman can claim Henry’s death was accidental, not suicide, but he also does this because the car represents his connection to Henry, Jr. He crashes the car in the river to keep it with Henry, thus keeping their connection, even in death.