O’Brien says he has not told this story to his parents, siblings, or wife. He speaks of living with the shame of the story, whose events occurred during the summer of
The day the draft notice is delivered, O’Brien thinks that he is too good to fight the war. Although his community pressures him to go, he resists making a decision about whether to go to war or flee. He spends the summer in a meatpacking plant in his hometown of Worthington, Minnesota, removing blood clots from pigs with a water gun. He comes home every night stinking of pig and drives around town aimlessly, paralyzed, wondering how to find a way out of his situation. It seems to him that there is no easy way out. The government won’t allow him to defer in order to go to graduate school; he can’t oppose the war as a matter of general principle because he does agree with war in some circumstances; and he can’t claim ill health as an excuse. He resents his hometown for making him feel compelled to fight a war that it doesn’t even know anything about.
In the middle of the summer, O’Brien begins thinking seriously about fleeing to Canada, eight hours north of Worthington. His conscience and instincts tell him to run. He worries, however, that such an action will lose him the respect of his family and community. He imagines the people he knows gossiping about him in the local café. During his sleepless nights, he struggles with his anger at the lack of perspective on the part of those who influenced him.
One day, O’Brien cracks. Feeling what he describes as a physical rupture in his chest, he leaves work suddenly, drives home, and writes a vague note to his family. He heads north and then west along the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada. The next afternoon, after spending the night behind a closed-down gas station, he pulls into a dilapidated fishing resort, the Tip Top Lodge, and meets the elderly proprietor, Elroy Berdahl. The two spend six days together, eating meals, hiking, and playing Scrabble. Although O’Brien never mentions his reason for going to the Canadian border, he has the sense that Elroy knows, since the quiet old man is sharp and intelligent. One night O’Brien inquires about his bill, and after the two men discuss O’Brien’s work—washing dishes and doing odd jobs—in relation to the cost of the room, Elroy concludes that he owes O’Brien more than a hundred dollars and offers O’Brien two hundred. O’Brien refuses the money, but the next morning he finds four fifty-dollar bills in an envelope tacked to his door. Looking back on this time in his life, O’Brien marvels at his innocence. He invites us to reflect with him, to pretend that we’re watching an old home movie of O’Brien, tan and fit, wearing faded blue jeans and a white polo shirt, sitting on Elroy’s dock, and thinking about writing an apologetic letter to his parents.
On O’Brien’s last full day at the Tip Top Lodge, Elroy takes him fishing on the Rainy River. During the voyage it occurs to O’Brien that they must have stopped in Canadian territory—soon after, Elroy stops the boat. O’Brien stares at the shoreline of Canada, twenty yards ahead of him, and wonders what to do. Elroy pretends not to notice as O’Brien bursts into tears. O’Brien tells himself he will run to Canada, but he silently concludes that he will go to war because he is embarrassed not to. Elroy pulls in his line and turns the boat back toward Minnesota. The next morning, O’Brien washes the breakfast dishes, leaves the two hundred dollars on the kitchen counter, and drives south to his home. He then goes off to war.
“On the Rainy River” is an exploration of the role of shame in war. The story develops the theme of embarrassment as a motivating factor, first introduced by Jimmy Cross in “The Things They Carried” and “Love.” Just as Jimmy Cross feels guilty about Ted Lavender’s death, O’Brien feels guilty about going to Vietnam against his principles. He questions his own motives, and in this story he returns to the genesis of his decision in order to examine with us the specifics of cause and effect.
Ironically, despite its specific details and its preoccupation with reality, “On the Rainy River” is the story most easily identifiable as fiction. The real Tim O’Brien did indeed struggle with his decision to heed his draft notice, but he never actually ran to the Canadian border, and he never stayed at the Tip Top Lodge. Still, as he states explicitly later in the work, the point of a story like this one is not to deliver true facts exactly as they happened but rather to use facts and details in order to give an accurate account of the feelings behind a given situation. Though the events in the story are not true, the story itself conveys an emotional truth.
By describing his personal history, O’Brien makes a broader comment on the confusion that soldiers experienced when the demands of their country and community conflicted with the demands of their princples and conscience. O’Brien’s description of his moral dilemma about going to Vietnam illustrates how the war was fought by soldiers who were often reluctant and conflicted. In the context of the collection’s later stories, “On the Rainy River” weighs the guilt of avoiding the draft against the guilt of committing atrocities against other humans. Though it seems obvious that killing is more ethically reprehensible than draft-dodging, O’Brien’s story explains how his largely uninformed community nonetheless wields a moral clout that overpowers his own opposition to the war.
This story references one of the recurring ideas in
The bald, shrunken, silent Elroy Berdahl is a father figure for the narrator. Although the two do not explicitly discuss O’Brien’s dilemma, Elroy forces O’Brien to shake himself out of complacent confusion. But Berdahl’s presence isn’t sharp or invasive. Rather, his effect is that of a mirror—saying nothing, expecting nothing, perhaps not even knowing the situation at hand, he leads O’Brien to the river and forces him to confront Canada and the prospect of freedom from the draft sitting on the other side. O’Brien is compelled into action, not because Elroy forces him, but rather because the old man leads him to the river, where the necessity of making a choice once and for all becomes clear to O’Brien.
O’Brien’s narrative reveals that he feels the need to justify and explain his decision to us, his readers, by putting us in the position of ethical judges of his actions. O’Brien’s description of himself as a naïve, impressionable youth is part of a defense of himself and of his actions. Although his blunt questioning of “What would you do?” and “Would you cry, as I did?” forces us to recognize the difficulty of his position, it also invites us to evaluate the validity of his course of action. Later in the work, O’Brien illustrates the power of war to transform an individual by showing his own transformation from young and impressionable to disillusioned and uninspired. Here, he compares the act of remembering his young, naïve self to watching an old home movie, and this metaphor makes us the audience of this movie and forces us to take a more active role in considering O’Brien.