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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison.

“You might not get this book back,” the student said, despite my name being written in permanent marker like the gold leaf on bible pages. I’m not particularly protective of books. In fact, every good book I’ve ever loved (in hardcopy) has been passed on to someone else, including some signed copies. But something bothered me about watching a student–who may still bring the book back, mind you–gleefully take possession of that particular volume. 

I’ve had that copy of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien since college. It’s one of my favorite books and I’ve taught it numerous times. The prose is silky smooth yet not ostentatious. The characters are perfectly rendered, imbued with the weight of experiences transitioning from the now to horrific memory that can’t be set aside, no matter how many times you drive around the lake or try to take pleasure in life after the war. Experience and mortality itself is a burden. 

“Is this creepy?” the student asked about the lieutenant’s pebble.

“Yes. It is a little creepy. But what else do you have to keep you going? It’s war. People die all the time. There’s a triple canopy, three layers of trees, so dark during the day you can’t even see the sun and you know Charlie is there, hiding everywhere, in tunnels underground, setting booby traps. No internet. No Nintendo Switch. How else can you deal with the stress?” 

She kept reading and a few moments later asked, “Why did he burn the picture?”

“Someone just died while he was distracted.” 

You could see the light bulb going off in her head as she arrived at the answer. Teacher euphoria swept over me. 

Still, I want that book back. I covet its dog-eared pages. My dragon brain wants the treasure.

Much as the main character Halla wants her treasure in the reissue of Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light (1952), published by Peapod Classics. As a little girl, Halla is thrown out of a kingdom and raised by bears. She learns their language and ways, then is given to dragons, where she becomes fire-proofed–licked by dragons–and experiences what it is to be alone in a high mountain cave hoarding treasure much like Tolkien’s Smaug. Mitchison is clearly ahead of her time, armed with the knowledge that language shapes thought, because it is only when Halla’s protective dragon is murdered by greedy men, spread wings draped protectively over its treasure, that she realizes she is in fact part of the dragon’s treasure, property to be hoarded or discarded, and her thoughts, desires and behavior have been shaped by the dragon’s language.

Halla escapes and wanders the wilderness, weighted down by jewelry and baubles she cannot live without. Exhausted and desperate for a cave to hide her treasure, Halla finally meets the All-Father, who tells her “those who live in caves, die in caves.[…] Travel light.”  

For a children’s folktale, this cautionary fable would be enough, but Mitchison is nowhere near done. Halla journeys into the world of men where her ability to communicate with animals makes her something of an angel to her followers and places her in a position to teach those who have most wronged her the meaning of love as only an angel who left all their earthly possessions behind can.

There’s more than a little something magical about Mitchison’s prose. It summarizes until it drops the reader into a pivotal scene, characterizes at a distance until someone moves, forcing still tableaus burst into life, and beneath it all there is the constant tension between the imperialist Roman Christian church and the covetous nature of dragons. When it comes full circle, it’s hard not to acknowledge that even the worst of wrongs, like tossing a helpless child like Halla into the wilderness, happens for a reason. There’s a plan. There’s something greater than a God of a single religion pulling the strings.

O’Brien can’t blame a man for holding onto the memory of a woman who no longer cares about him in time of war, for lying awake at night and rubbing their thumb across the glossy surface of a photo or carrying a pebble in their mouth, tasting its smooth saltiness, even if it causes someone else to be inadvertently killed. Or, that same lieutenant for setting up camp in field of shit where Kiowa slips deep into the mud under mortar fire. In every instance, much as was the case when I watched my student excitedly leave my classroom with The Things They Carried tucked under their arm, it’s better to let it go. 

If there’s one thing the juxtaposition of these two books make clear, it’s isn’t easy to travel light. Sometimes material things are what keep us going. The desire for a bigger house or to pay off debt. The simple act of watching the bank account grow. Halla keeps helping the men that follow her and O’Brien keeps writing war stories because they both search for meaning in an otherwise rudderless world. 

It’s been said that we are the children of a beneficent universe. Perhaps that isn’t so. There is no divine plan or perfect justice, but our species’ continuous search for meaning gives life purpose.  

Watching my student take away on my favorite books, I had to agree with Mitchison. Travel light. The universe will reveal its purpose in time. Or at least, I’ll find a reason to ascribe. And that, my friends, is a treasure worth hoarding.

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Categories: Book Reviews

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