In “The Red Convertible,” Erdrich associates war exclusively with trauma. There is no glorification or nationalistic sentiment—Henry goes to fight in Vietnam a carefree, gentle young man, and he comes back a shell-shocked veteran who eventually dies as a direct result of his untreated mental disorder. Furthermore, while Erdrich depicts Henry’s mental problems at length, the characters remain muddy on the actual purpose of war. They never discuss supporting or opposing Vietnam, they never mention the war’s purpose—Lyman even notes that he “could never keep it straight, which direction those good Vietnam soldiers were from,” which indicates his loose grasp on even the basic facts of the war. In this way, Erdrich depicts war as a terrible and pointless experience whose primary significance is not moral or geopolitical, but rather in the way it ruins lives.
Before experiencing the trauma of war, Henry is generous, easygoing, and jocular. This is clear in his close and carefree relationship with his brother Lyman, and also in his interactions with the young girl Susy, a hitchhiker he agrees to drive all the way to Alaska. After he and Lyman stay with her family for a season, she shows them her spectacularly long hair, and he puts her on his shoulders, pretending her hair is his and expressing his admiration for it. Henry’s kind, agreeable, and adventurous spirit makes it all the more traumatic for Lyman and the rest of their family when Henry comes back from the war hostile, aggressive, taciturn, and depressed. His condition is no doubt related to his experience being a prisoner of war, which is mentioned once but never discussed again, presumably because it is too distressing to talk about. His complete about-face in personality demonstrates how damaging the effects of war can be.
It is important that Erdrich never names Henry’s condition, though it is clearly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by today’s definition, which is common among veterans. It’s likely that Erdrich doesn’t name PTSD as the source of Henry’s problems because the family themselves don’t know what is wrong. The name “PTSD” did not become widely used until after the Vietnam War, and the family has no clear idea of what has overtaken Henry, only an acute awareness that the condition is dangerous and needs medical treatment. Furthermore, Henry himself does not speak about what happened to him in war, or about what afflicts him now that he is home, perhaps because there is a stigma to discussing mental health (particularly for men and for soldiers), and perhaps because he himself does not understand what is wrong. The effect of not knowing exactly what is wrong with Henry means that Henry’s condition seems scarier and more hopeless, a mystery condition for the characters, if not the reader as well.
It’s also important to note that Henry’s access to the healthcare that could have saved his life is compromised by the fact that he is a Chippewa Indian living on a reservation. Erdrich is somewhat subtle about the systemic prejudice against Native Americans living on reservations, but she is clear that the family does not have access to good healthcare because of their identity. Lyman and his mother do not trust the local doctor who is non-Indian (they have personal history with him and fear he will be vindictive), nor do they trust hospitals to give Henry proper treatment, suspecting that the doctors will instead just get him addicted to psychiatric drugs. (American Indians have good reasons to be skeptical of “white” hospitals, as there’s a long history of white doctors giving nonwhite people bad—and even unethical—care.) However, Henry’s lack of treatment directly contributes to his death—either he commits suicide because he has no options, or his mental anguish leads him not to think clearly when he jumps into a river with a strong current.
Henry dies from his wartime trauma despite having a loving family that tries to support him. This is partially because he is discriminated against as a Chippewa, but also because his disorder was not being comprehensively treated during the 1970s when this story takes place. Furthermore, Erdrich doesn’t suggest that his death was meaningful or worthwhile—Lyman can’t even identify which side is which in the war that irreparably changed his brother, and nobody in the family seems concerned with patriotism or civic duty. Henry’s death is simply a senseless tragedy, not a valorous sacrifice for worthwhile ideals.
The Trauma of War ThemeTracker
The Trauma of War Quotes in The Red Convertible
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.
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.