The Things They Carry by Tim O’Brien has become a favorite in my AP Literature classroom. O’Brien’s journalistic style allows students to delve into theme and literary analysis without being weighed down with heavy diction and ornate syntax, but this is by no means a lightweight book. The stories and reality of war bring the depth.
I ask students to write down twelve things that they anticipate they will take to college. These should include a mix of tangible items such as their phone, blanket, and favorite coffee mug with intangible items such as their mother’s love and memories from high school. Students cut these items into strips and turn them face down on their desk. I randomly choose six items from each student’s desk. Students then write for five to ten minutes on their feelings of what was taken, how life will be without those things, what was left, and general observations. Students are then prepped for a conversation on the randomness of war, the effects of war, and personal sacrifices the war required of soldiers the same age as many of my students. Some students are surprised to learn that losing some things can be good but most have negative effects; some students.
The Things They Carried provides the perfect backdrop to read a small collection of war poems. I try to provide my students a steady diet of poetry through the year, and poetry complements O’Brien’s style nicely. The poems also offer students a different point of view to enter the personal stories of the book. Poems include but are certainly not limited to:
“In Flander Fields” by John McRea
“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
“Losses” by Randall Jarrell
“Marching Men” by Marjorie Pickthall
“Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell
“War is Kind” by Stephen Crane
“The Cenotaph” by Charlotte Mew
“Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen
Poems are typically read in and discussed in class. Sometimes I will have students choose one or two poems they feel best reflects O’Brien’s attitude in The Things They Carried defending their claims with evidence from both the novel and poems.
The Things They Carried allows students to discuss the makings of a genre since this book blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction as well as a collection of short stories combined to make a novel. We discuss the characteristics of fiction including turning points, linear and nonlinear timelines, and truth being subjective among other characteristics then the characteristics of nonfiction including factual events typically told through a linear timeline. Students then tackle the following questions:
What characteristics of fiction can be seen in The Things They Carried?
What characteristics of nonfiction can be seen in The Things They Carried?
Is The Things They Carried fiction, nonfiction, or a combination of the two? Why?
What place does truth have in storytelling?
Tone and Syntax:
With its journalistic style and personal narrative nature, The Things They Carried provides students an opportunity to study contemporary syntax and tone. Family groups choose three passages where syntax enhances the meaning of the passage and the author’s tone is evident. Groups must describe the author’s syntax in detail and its significance to the meaning of the passage. Groups must also identify O’Brien’s tone citing specific evidence from the passage with analysis. Groups then write two paragraphs – one on O’Brien’s syntax and one on his tone. Groups present their conclusions to the class serving as a springboard to discussion.
In addition to the big picture activities, we will look specifically at different chapters as we read. “On the Rainy River” is the perfect mentor text for writing personal narratives. “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong” is often one a favorite chapter and leads to insightful discussions on war and innocence and O’Brien’s use of symbolism. “The Man I Killed” and “Ambush” provide contrast between O’Brien as a soldier and O’Brien as a narrator. “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” “In the Field,” “Good Form,” and “Field Trip” give the reader an opportunity to look at Kiowa’s death through different lens.