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Loss of Innocence in Louise Erdrich’s The Red Convertible

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In Louise Erdrich’s The Red Convertible, Henry and Lyman, the two main characters, begin in the story as happy-go-lucky young men. However, they both experience some significant changes in their lives that change their outlook and replaces their innocence with maturity, and disillusionment. The changes are particularly drastic for Henry, who is affected deeply after being drafted and going through the traumatic experience of the Vietnam War. Henry’s transformation affects Lyman as well, but for different reasons. In this particular story, Erdrich essentially delivers a subtle message of the destructive aspects of war in the context of everyday life.

The story starts with a portrayal of what is perhaps typical carefree nature of youth. Henry and Lyman are very close, and spend much time together, and are happy and carefree. They would sit still “for whole afternoons, never moving a muscle, just shifting our weight along the ground, talking to whoever sat with us, watching things” (Erdrich 186). Henry always had a joke at the ready.

Their lack of a sense of responsibility is apparent; they buy the convertible almost on a whim: “before we had thought it over at all, the car belonged to us and our pockets were empty” (Erdrich 182). After buying the car they go exploring aimlessly. At this point they come upon a hitchhiker, a girl named Susy, and they take her to her home in Chicken, Alaska. There they stay for quite a while, and Susy’s family allow them to live right next to their house, in a tent.

One day they decide that it was time to go because of the changing season. Before they go Susy shows them her very long hair, which extends beyond her feet. At this point there is another demonstration of how childlike and innocent Henry is. Upon seeing Susy Henry asks her to jump on his shoulders, whereupon he twirls around and says “I always wondered what it was like to have long pretty hair” (Erdrich 184).

Henry soon leaves for the army, but before he does he gives Lyman his keys to the convertible and tells him that the car is now his. Henry becomes one of the soldiers to fight in the Vietnam War. During this time Lyman, through letters, keeps Henry informed about the car, a symbol of their brotherly bond and their carefree days.

The trauma of the war, during which according to Lyman Henry became a prisoner of war, has a terrible effect on Henry. He becomes “jumpy and mean” (Erdrich 186). He is “quiet, so quiet, and never comfortable sitting still anywhere but always up and moving around” (Erdrich 186). When he does laugh, “it was more the sound of a man choking, a sound that stopped up the throats of other people around him” (Erdrich 186), and people started to avoid him.

Lyman buys a color television but regrets doing so. The only time that Henry sits still is in front of it, but then his stillness is an uneasy one; “it was the kind of stillness that you see in a rabbit when it freezes and before it will bolt” (Erdrich 186). As Henry watches the television he grips the arms of the chair with all his might as if afraid of being knocked off.

Once Henry even bites through his lip as he and Lyman sit watching. Lyman realizes that the television had some part in this, and wants to smash it, but Henry prevents him. Henry later sits down to dinner, and he ate with his lip dripping blood, mixing with his food. While being almost indifferent to the pain in his mouth, he is ironically subject to the psychological pain of his wartime experiences, which seems to refuse to leave him.

Until this time Henry has expressed no interest in the red convertible, and has not seen it again after returning from the war. But here we see that Lyman is still a person full of hope, in this case hope that his brother would return to how he was before the war. Lyman gets an idea on how to get Henry out of his current state. He takes a hammer and destroys the convertible, hoping that this will arouse Henry to fix it and thus give him some distraction. At one point, Lyman again demonstrates his hopefulness, as he fiddles with the television set so that there was no longer a clear picture, intending to discourage Henry from returning to his tense watching of the television.

Lyman has to wait a month before Henry finds the car, and we see that there is still some remnant of Henry’s youthful self, as the state of the convertible is able to break through his numbed mind. When Henry finds it, he admonishes Lyman, and it is the first time that Lyman hears him speak more than six words together. When Henry finally fixes the car, Henry invites Lyman to take the convertible for a drive, giving Lyman some hope that the old Henry might be returning.

The two leave and drive to the river. There Lyman thinks that he gets a glimpse of how Henry feels, and Lyman shakes Henry and tells him repeatedly to “wake up!” “I know it,” is what Henry says. “I know it. I can’t help it. It’s no use” (Erdrich 191), signifying that he knows his condition is terrible, but has lost hope to do anything about it. Henry tells Lyman that he fixed the car just so he could give it back to Lyman, and insists on giving Lyman the car back, which results in a short fist fight, but ends in laughter. Henry then proceeds to dance wildly, as if making up for all the time that he lost his carefree nature. He then abruptly jumps to the river to cool off. Henry then says, in a normal voice, that his boots are filling in, and then he disappears.

Lyman tries to rescue him but fails. After realizing that Henry has drowned, Lyman sends the car after Henry, into the river with its headlights on, thus still refusing to take it from his brother, and thus giving up the thing that, to them both, represented the past. Lyman afterwards, some time after Henry’s death, could no longer stand looking at a picture their sister took of them earlier, and he hides it in a closet. In these situations Lyman lets go of his past and his bond with his brother, and thus lets go of the most significant remembrance of his innocence.

Works Cited

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Additional Resources

Reid, E. Shelley. The Stories We Tell: Louise Erdrich’s Identity Narratives. MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States. (2000): 65.

Werner, Kate. 12 Dec 2002. The Red Convertible. 28 June 2006. <http://caxton.stockton.edu/pinksocks/stories/storyReader$33>.

Nance, Brian. Red Convertible. 28, June, 2006. <http://bnancerb34.tripod.com/id4.html>.

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