Review: In the Lake Of the Woods by Tim O'Brien
“In September, after the primary, they rented an old yellow cottage in the timber at the edge of Lake of the Woods.” So begins Tim O’Brien's 1994 novel of suspense, In The Lake of the Woods.
When I taught freshman English there was a sure way to sort out the students who liked to think about possibilities from those who wanted definite answers. The ones who courted imagination and the ones who went after fact. It all depended on their reaction to the old short story by Frank Stockton, The Lady or the Tiger?
You remember the story, a king obsessed with order and power has a beautiful daughter. He also has a method of justice that is unique. People in his kingdom who are accused of a crime are put into a great arena where they are forced to choose between two doors. Behind one door crouches a terrible tiger, ready to rip the accused to bloody shreds; behind the other waits a blushing and trembling lady, one most suitable to the age and station of the accused. The accused holds his fate in his own hands, and is immediately either punished or rewarded, and the masses watching are entertained in either case.
So, one day a lowborn lad has the misfortune to fall in love with the daughter of the powerful king, and in accordance with law, is thrown into the arena.
A little background, the princess loves her young man with a semi-barbaric passion. Stockton tells the reader how the princess discovers the secret of the doors, which one conceals the ravenous tiger, which the lovely lady. Gold crosses palms and she learns that the lady is one she knows well, and she is not happy. The princess has to make a tough decision. Should she send her lover to certain death, or into the arms of another woman? Sleep is lost, tears are shed, but the inevitable day arrives and the princess decides.
The crowds wait in the arena. The king and the princess have prime seats. The lover is in the middle of it. He glances up and instantly he knows that she knows. She knows that he knows that she knows. The tension grows. Her hand twitches bit, and the lover walks confidently to a door and opens it.
That’s it. Stockton leaves the reader to decide if the lady or the tiger waits on the other side of the door. That is the title, after all.
The story is wonderful to discuss, but it causes howls of protest from students who don’t see the ending coming. But it happens that those who are interested in analyzing the psychology of the semi-barbaric princess begin to think and talk. Slowly it dawns upon them that the story is not so much about the princess as it is about the reader. What would the reader do in that impossible circumstance? Would love or barbarism prevail?
I suspect that the same people who hate the ambiguous ending of the classic short story will also be frustrated by Tim O’Brien’s book, but for me it is as compelling today as it was when it was first published. Today’s news is full of stories of campaigning, of politicians maneuvering to win the confidence of their constituents. We’ve seen it before, a slip of the tongue, a skeleton in the closet, and the game is over. The masses watch it all on television or read about it over morning coffee, and they wait to see who falls next. The other story that is unfolding before us is that of our military entanglements overseas, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We hear of soldiers maimed and killed in roadside bombs, of suicide bombers and of snipers. Stories emerge of women and children killed, and once again it is clear that nothing is really clear at all. Deja vu for those able to remember Vietnam. What will the future hold for those men and women who return home from the carnage they witness and participate in during wartime?
The reader of O’Brien’s novel is put in the same position as my hapless freshmen. He or she must decide what happened to Kathy Wade, wife of John Wade, defeated politician, former Vietnam soldier, magician and fatherless son. Did she run off to begin a new life, meet with a simple boating accident, or was she murdered by her husband? Was she an innocent whose life was violently taken, or did she take her fate into her own hands? Is Wade a murderer? Or is he a survivor who does whatever he must to live with what his life has handed him?
Some people will crave a resolution, but others will enjoy piecing together the whole story as it flips between the present the past, shifts point of view, and presents bits of evidence and hypothesis. In the end it will be up to you to decide what really happened In The Lake of the Woods.