In “The Red Convertible,” the Vietnam War is a traumatic experience that young men are forced into because of the draft. The adverse effects that the war has on Henry and his family are exacerbated by the unwritten, unspoken rules of masculinity that discourage men from speaking about their trauma. For Erdrich, norms of masculinity (particularly silence) are restrictive and can be actively harmful—they force young men into wars, traumatize them, and offer them limited means of talking about their trauma afterwards, which isolates them and makes their suffering worse.
Before the war, Henry does not adhere to typical norms of masculinity. He is easygoing, comic, and gentle, most notably in the scene with Susy where he says, “I always wondered what it was like to have long pretty hair.” Thus, his nature contrasts sharply with the way he looks—he is physically strong, and he resembles the Native American warrior Red Tomahawk whose image is on North Dakota highway billboards. Henry becomes a Marine, which is one of the more intense and dangerous positions in the military, and his brother Lyman suspects he is chosen for that role because of how physically intimidating he looks. Despite his naturally easygoing nature, the army uses him for his brute strength, and to be reduced to physicality in that way can itself can be traumatic.
After the war, Henry is so haunted by the horrors that he has seen that he finds it difficult to be a part of civilian life, ceasing to joke around or chat easily with others. He is no doubt traumatized, and since men are often discouraged from speaking about their trauma, his inability to ask for help or even express what he is going through makes him much more vulnerable and isolated. His silence is also perhaps related to social alienation. Erdrich never depicts him interacting with other veterans who might understand his experiences, and his mother and brother—who love and care about him—seem only interested in getting him to return to who he was before the war, rather than getting to know him on his own terms.
Lyman and their mother also appear to feel the pressure to be silent about Henry’s illness. They never speak to him directly about it, but instead speak quietly to each other about options for helping him recover whenever he isn’t around. This seems to suggest that they fear angering Henry by bringing up his suffering, and Lyman even says at one point that it would be difficult to even get Henry to the hospital, which suggests that Henry might be too ashamed or prideful to get treatment for a “mental disorder.” Instead, his treatment is almost nonexistent: it consists of silently watching television, never seeing a doctor, and working on the car that Lyman intentionally destroyed to give Henry a hobby. This non-treatment culminates in Henry throwing himself in the river.
“The Red Convertible” thereby subtly criticizes the culture of silence around mental illness, and particularly the ways in which men are discouraged from speaking about their trauma. Had Henry and his family been able to speak openly about his condition and seek treatment, perhaps he could have been saved.
Masculinity and Silence ThemeTracker
Masculinity and Silence Quotes in The Red Convertible
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.
While Henry was not around we talked about what was going to happen to him. There were no Indian doctors on the reservation, and my mom couldn't come around to trusting the old man, Moses Pillager, because he courted her long ago and was jealous of her husbands. He might take revenge through her son. We were afraid that if we brought Henry to a regular hospital they would keep him. “They don't fix them in those places,” Mom said; “they just give them drugs.”
“We wouldn't get him there in the first place,” I agreed, “so let's just forget about it.”
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.
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!"