The Red Convertible Summary: Lyman Lamartine, a young American Indian man, living in North Dakota, remembers his first car, a red convertible Oldsmobile, unprecedented on his reservation. The car used to be his and his brother’s, but now, he claims, Henry owns the whole car, and Lyman has to walk everywhere he goes.
Lyman has always been good at making money, and buying the car was no problem. They both traveled in the car to Alaska. There, they meet Susy, a girl with very long hair. They stay with her family for a whole season before returning home. Once they return home, Henry leaves for war in Vietnam. Sometimes, he writes to Lyman, but Lyman writes many more letters, assuring him that the car is in good condition. After three years, Henry returns home despite being captured by the enemy.
|The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008. Louise Erdrich at her best!||Prime||Buy Now|
However, he becomes a different person. He no longer laughs or makes jokes like he used to. He is often left alone. Lyman and their mother reconsidered their decision to take him to a doctor after realizing that the only available doctor was an ex of the mother. They could not be so sure that the doctor would not mistreat Henry. So, Lyman smashes up the convertible hoping that that will interest Henry. It did work as Henry spent time fixing the vehicle.
One day, their sister takes a picture of them with the car before they leave for a ride. Lyman found the photograph troubling, so he hides it in a closet. They went on another drive that evening, and Henry tells Lyman he could have the car all to himself. Lyman refuses, and they playfully argue.
They had some drinks and considered picking up girls, but Henry says they know they are crazy. Lyman, trying to keep the mood light, tells him he is crazy. Initially, Henry will get upset, but instead, he jokes back, saying that Indians are all crazy. Suddenly, Henry jumps into the river to cool off, but the strong current overpowers him. Lyman tries to save him, but he cannot, and he isn’t sure whether it is an accident or suicide. Lyman pushes the car into the river.
LOSS OF INNOCENCE
In “The Red Convertible,” Henry and Lyman lose their childhood innocence as they encounter the realities of adulthood. Henry goes to a war of unimaginable horrors that changes him. On the other hand, Lyman has to deal with the loss of his brother twice. First, when the war changes Henry and when he drowns. Throughout the story, Erdrich shows that the loss of innocence is normal with growth and that any attempt to deny it can be catastrophic.
At the beginning of the story, Henry and Lyman seem to have no care in the world as they travel all over North America. Their red convertible symbolizes their freedom and youthful innocence. They must have thought that this phase would last for eternity. Their treatment of the car shows their denial of aging. They bother not about its maintenance, assuming that the car will continue to be in perfect condition irrespective of its use. But they soon realize that there is an end to their youthful behavior. Henry has to go to the Vietnam War, and Lyman discovers that the car is poor.
Both brothers lose their innocence, although Henry’s is much quicker and more extreme since he loses his through the violence and trauma of war. While going to war is supposedly a way of “becoming a man,” Erdrich differentiates between losing innocence and becoming mature. The war erased Henry’s sense of innocence, but this doesn’t make him a more capable adult. Instead, Henry returns home without the ambition or passion he used to have. His once beloved Red Convertible holds no meaning anymore. Tragically, though, maturity did not replace this loss of innocence.
On the other hand, Lyman refuses to accept that his youth is fading. While Henry is gone, Lyman fixes the car to delay his aging process. However, the return of Henry causes Lyman to lose a little of his innocence too, as he is faced with the responsibility of looking after his brother.
Lyman’s loss of innocence becomes obvious when he damages the car hoping his brother will try to fix it. Lyman’s inability to acknowledge the reality of growing up leaves him unable to accept Henry just as he is until the final scene, where Lyman pushes the car into the river after Henry has drowned. Here, he seems to accept that his childhood is over finally. Although the loss of innocence is considered natural, the brothers’ was brutal, harsh, and unnecessary. Erdrich doesn’t give us an idea of a healthy loss of innocence, but it definitely should not be traumatic.
THE TRAUMA OF WAR
In “The Red Convertible,” Erdrich associates war exclusively with trauma. Henry goes to fight in Vietnam a carefree, gentle young man. He returns as a different person who eventually dies due to 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 lack of information on even the basic facts of the war. In this way, Erdrich seems to consider war a terrible and pointless experience whose primary significance is not moral or geopolitical but an experience that ruins lives.
Erdrich never names Henry’s condition, and understandably so. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which was most likely what Henry had, did not become widely used until after the Vietnam War. The family seemed to be ignorant of exactly what was wrong with Henry. Henry himself says nothing about what happened to him in war, perhaps because he does not understand what is wrong. The effect of not knowing 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 life could have been saved if he had access to healthcare, but he was a Chippewa Indian living in America.
Henry dies from his wartime trauma despite his loving and supportive family. This is not just 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, nothing by Erdrich points to Henry’s death being meaningful or worthwhile. Nobody in the family seems concerned with patriotism or civic duty. Henry’s death is simply a senseless tragedy, not a valorous sacrifice.
MASCULINITY AND SILENCE
In “The Red Convertible,” the Vietnam War is a traumatic experience that young men are forced into. The adverse effects that the war has on Henry and his family are multiplied by the unwritten, unspoken rules of masculinity that prevent men from speaking about their trauma. The silence that results from this can be harmful as—they force young men into wars, traumatize them, and prevent them from talking about their trauma afterward, 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.”
After the war, Henry becomes haunted by the horrors that he has seen that he finds it difficult to be a part of civilian life. He is undoubtedly traumatized, and since men are often discouraged from speaking about their trauma, he finds it difficult to ask for help. His silence is also perhaps related to social alienation. Erdrich never portrays him interacting with other veterans who might understand his experiences. His mother and brother were only particular about returning him to the Henry they used to know and not understanding him on his terms.
“The Red Convertible” thereby subtly criticizes the culture of silence around mental illness, and particularly how men are discouraged from speaking about their trauma. If Henry and his family had been able to speak openly about his condition and seek treatment, perhaps he could have been alive.
AMERICAN AND AMERICAN INDIAN IDENTITY
In “The Red Convertible,” Henry and Lyman are both American and American Indian, and these two factors affect their experiences. Like these brothers, many Americans of different races get cars as teenagers or go to war. However, Erdrich also points out that these typically- American experiences are always tempered by the boys’ American Indian identity. Although their lives are not defined by their race, there is still some discrimination.
Henry and Lyman’s youth is a happy one. Their close relationship with one another, their ability to pay for their car and travel whenever they want aids their seamless transition to adulthood.
Importantly, their car is a sports car, which is not common among teenagers. This depicts them as lucky American boys despite their American Indian identity.
Another way Erdrich puts American and American Indian identity in tension is through war. Like thousands of other young men across the country, Henry has to go to war involuntarily and returns a damaged man. This was common for American men in the 1970s. However, like with the car, Erdrich is also clear about how his race complicates his situation. While many American veterans of all races received some physical and mental healthcare, Henry did not because of his identity. He and his family mistrust most hospitals because of generations of mistreatment. There are no American Indian doctors on the reservation. The only nearby doctor has a conflict of interest with their mother. Henry’s lack of treatment worsens his condition and is one of the reasons he dies.
Erdrich does not stick to stereotypes of impoverished or downtrodden American Indians. Although Whites’ discrimination of American Indians is present, Erdrich is careful not to let it take over the story. “The Red Convertible” thus depicts the complex intersection between national identity and the specific realities of American Indian life.
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