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  • Tim O'Brien's Myth of Courage1
  • Milton J. Bates (bio)

"My concerns," novelist Tim O'brien told an interviewer in 1982, "have to do with the abstractions: what's courage and how do you get it? What's justice and how do you achieve it? How does one do right in an evil situation?" (Schroeder 145). O'Brien went on to say that while he does not presume to answer these questions in his writings, he does try to give them dramatic importance. He distinguished his own work in this respect from much contemporary writing, which seems to him to be "aimed at rather frivolous objectives." In the four books he has published to date—If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973), Northern Lights (1975), Going After Cacciato (1978), and The Nuclear Age (1985)—O'Brien proves to be both a master of his craft and a writer engaged thoughtfully and emotionally with the big issues.

The biggest of the big issues in his first three books is the one he places at the head of his list of what he calls "abstractions": what is courage and how do you get it? It is a question that places him in the tradition of our great war novelists—Crane, Hemingway, Jones, Mailer, Heller, and Vonnegut. O'Brien has learned a good deal stylistically from [End Page 263] Hemingway, as more than one reviewer has remarked.2 However, his approach to the question of courage is unique. Besides being more philosophical (what other war novelist would risk inserting a page from one of Plato's dialogues in his narrative?), it is also more domestic and, in the best sense of the word, civilized. In fact, O'Brien addresses the question of courage most directly in the one book among the three that is not—at least not ostensibly—a war story. Northern Lights, though it includes a Vietnam veteran among its central characters, is set in the Arrowhead region of northern Minnesota. I propose to examine this novel in some detail, first, because it is not widely known and is currently out of print; and second, because it articulates the myth of courage that is implicit in both of the Vietnam narratives.


The most vivid and in some respects the most vital character in Northern Lights has been dead for eight years when the novel opens. Pehr Lindstrom Peri is the epitome of the northern temperament and the masculine principle. Raised by his father, an immigrant lumberjack-turned-preacher, Pehr Peri legally excises his middle name as an embarrassing vestige of maternity. "I didn't have a mother," he explains, "because I didn't need one" (69). When he succeeds his father as minister in the Damascus Lutheran Church in Sawmill Landing, he preaches the same brand of Christianity, strong on apocalyptic visions and infused with pagan mythic elements from the Finnish Kalevala. Not salvation, or love, but stoic endurance and unflinching acceptance of the end are the great virtues, exemplified less by Jesus than by the Bull of Karelia in the epic poem "a moose with antlers gone and head down in the dead of winter" (70).3

Peri puts aside his distaste for feminine softness long enough to marry a wife and beget two sons, Paul and Harvey. Harvey, the younger, is everything this father could want in a son. Nicknamed "Bull," he has the reckless courage required to jump from a school window, play football, and eventually go off to a mysterious war in Southeast Asia, where he is blinded in one eye. Together, he and his father hunt the expanse of hardwoods and conifers that surrounds Sawmill Landing. When Pehr Peri lies dying during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, his apocalyptic visions apparently about to be realized in a nuclear holocaust, Harvey single-handedly builds a bomb shelter to the old man's specifications. [End Page 264]

The older son is another matter. As a boy, Paul Perry (the family name has been Americanized in this generation)—disappoints his father by refusing to attend his sermons or to venture into the deep woods; at the last, he refuses even to help construct the...


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pp. 263-279
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