In “The Red Convertible,” brothers Henry and Lyman both lose their childhood innocence as they face the realities of adulthood. Henry is thrust into a war full of unimaginable horrors that change the way he thinks and acts. Meanwhile, Lyman is forced to deal with losing his brother not once but twice—first when Henry returns from war a changed man, and then later when he drowns in the river. Throughout the story, Erdrich depicts loss of innocence as an inevitable part of growing up, and she shows that trying to deny or forestall loss of innocence is foolish and can even lead to catastrophe.
At the beginning of the story, Henry and Lyman travel all over North America seemingly without a care in the world. Their easy freedom and youthful innocence are symbolized by their red convertible, a beautiful and rare car which they amicably share, going on reckless adventures without much concern over spending all their money or putting themselves in danger. Particularly in the scene where they meet Susy, a girl with surrealistically long hair, they seem free, young, and happy—a condition that they seem to believe might last forever. However, their denial of the reality of aging is clear in the way they treat the car. They travel all over the continent “without putting up the car hood at all” (in other words, they do no maintenance, choosing to believe that the car will run perfectly in spite of their extensive travels). In fact, their youthful behavior does catch up to them and come to an end—when they return home, Henry is drafted into the Vietnam war and Lyman finds that the car is in poor condition because, of course, “the long trip did a hard job on it under the hood.”
This moment marks the beginning of both brothers’ loss of innocence, although Henry’s is much quicker and more extreme, as he loses his youth through the violence and trauma of war. While going to war is supposedly a way of “becoming a man,” Erdrich makes a distinction between loss of innocence and becoming a mature adult. Henry’s traumatic experience of being captured and held by the enemy does erase his sense of freedom and childhood innocence, but it does not glorify him or make him a more capable adult. Instead, Henry returns home without any of his old charm, without ambition or passion, and with his mental health in shambles. Instead of traveling or working, he spends his time nervously watching television, which is hardly the behavior of a well-adjusted adult. Notably, when Henry returns, he has no interest in his once-beloved convertible—the innocence and freedom it represents have no meaning to Henry anymore. Tragically, though, this lost innocence hasn’t been replaced by maturity. Instead of moving on to the next stage of his life, he simply seems broken.
While Henry has lost innocence without gaining maturity, Lyman is still in denial that his youth is fading at all. After his brother leaves for war and gifts him the convertible, Lyman still insists that the car belongs to Henry (even though, symbolically speaking, the car can no longer belong to Henry since its innocence has no place in Henry’s wartime world). While Henry is gone, Lyman fixes up the car and obsessively maintains it, as though he is fighting his own aging process, trying to return himself, his brother, and their car to their childhood innocence. However, when Henry returns home and shows no interest in the car, Lyman loses a little of his innocence, too—he and his mother become responsible for looking after Henry, strategizing together about how to get him medical care despite the limited resources on the reservation.
Lyman’s loss of innocence is most apparent when he takes a hammer to the car in order to trick Henry into fixing it up, thereby giving his older brother a purpose. While destroying a symbol of innocence (particularly in an attempt to surreptitiously help his older brother) seems like an acknowledgement of growing older, Lyman actually thinks he can return them both to their carefree childhood if he can only reignite Henry’s passion for the car. While this seems initially to work, of course it fails—their ride in the car and their raucous interactions at the river seem like they might portend a return to innocence, but they actually set the stage for Henry’s subsequent drowning, which is perhaps even a suicide. Lyman’s inability to acknowledge the reality of growing up leaves him unable to accept Henry on his own terms until the final scene, where Lyman pushes the car into the river after Henry has drowned, seemingly acknowledging that his childhood is irrevocably over. Though loss of innocence is natural, the way it occurs for Henry and, by extension, for his family, is brutal, harsh, and unnecessary. Erdrich doesn’t provide a model for what healthy loss of innocence would look like, but presumably its primary fuel wouldn’t be trauma.
Loss of Innocence ThemeTracker
Loss of Innocence Quotes in The Red Convertible
I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation. And of course it was red, a red Olds. I owned that car along with my brother Henry Junior. We owned it together until his boots filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share. Now Henry owns the whole car, and his younger brother Lyman (that's myself), Lyman walks everywhere he goes.
We went places in that car, me and Henry. We took off driving all one whole summer… We got up there [to Alaska] and never wanted to leave. The sun doesn't truly set there in summer, and the night is more a soft dusk. You might doze off, sometimes, but before you know it you're up again, like an animal in nature. You never feel like you have to sleep hard or put away the world. And things would grow up there.
She was standing on a chair, but still, when she unclipped her buns the hair reached all the way to the ground. Our eyes opened. You couldn't tell how much hair she had when it was rolled up so neatly. Then my brother Henry did something funny. He went up to the chair and said, "Jump on my shoulders." So she did that, and her hair reached down past his waist, and he started twirling, this way and that, so her hair was flung out from side to side.
"I always wondered what it was like to have long pretty hair," Henry says. Well we laughed. It was a funny sight, the way he did it.
I don't wonder that the army was so glad to get my brother that they turned him into a Marine. He was built like a brick outhouse anyway. We liked to tease him that they really wanted him for his Indian nose. He had a nose big and sharp as a hatchet, like the nose on Red Tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, whose profile is on signs all along the North Dakota highways.
I'd bought a color TV set for my mom and the rest of us while Henry was away. Money still came very easy. I was sorry I'd ever bought it though, because of Henry. I was also sorry I'd bought color, because with black-and-white the pictures seem older and farther away…
Once I was in the room watching TV with Henry and I heard his teeth click at something. I looked over, and he'd bitten through his lip. Blood was going down his chin. I tell you right then I wanted to smash that tube to pieces. I went over to it but Henry must have known what I was up to. He rushed from his chair and shoved me out of the way, against the wall. I told myself he didn't know what he was doing.
It was so sunny that day Henry had to squint against the glare. Or maybe the camera Bonita held flashed like a mirror, blinding him, before she snapped the picture. My face is right out in the sun, big and round. But he might have drawn back, because the shadows on his face are deep as holes. There are two shadows curved like little hooks around the ends of his smile, as if to frame it and try to keep it there—that one, first smile that looked like it might have hurt his face.
The trip over there was beautiful. When everything starts changing, drying up, clearing off, you feel like your whole life is starting. Henry felt it, too. The top was down and the car hummed like a top. He'd really put it back in shape, even the tape on the seats was very carefully put down and glued back in layers. It's not that he smiled again or even joked, but his face looked to me as if it was clear, more peaceful. It looked as though he wasn't thinking of anything in particular except the bare fields and windbreaks and houses we were passing.
He says nothing. But I can tell his mood is turning again.
"They're all crazy, the girls up here, every damn one of them."
"You're crazy too," I say, to jolly him up. "Crazy Lamartine boys!"
He looks as though he will take this wrong at first. His face twists, then clears, and he jumps up on his feet. "That's right!" he says. "Crazier 'n hell. Crazy Indians!"
No sound comes from the river after the splash he makes, so I run right over. I look around. It's getting dark. I see he's halfway across the water already, and I know he didn't swim there but the current took him. It's far. I hear his voice, though, very clearly across it.
"My boots are filling," he says.
He says this in a normal voice, like he just noticed and he doesn't know what to think of it. Then he's gone. A branch comes by. Another branch. And I go in…
I walk back to the car, turn on the high beams, and drive it up the bank. I put it in first gear and then I take my foot off the clutch. I get out, close the door, and watch it plow softly into the water.