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In Country (1985) is a war novel by American author Bobbie Ann Mason (1940-Present). The story follows Sam Hughes, a young woman whose father was killed in the Vietnam War. Sam's uncle Emmett also fought in the war but is reluctant to talk about his harrowing experiences. Mason uses the family's experiences to analyze the impact of war by exploring themes of trauma and recovery.
The summary of the main plot points from Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country is divided into three parts, just like the novel, with Part II covering most of the book's action.
Sam Hughes is a 17-year-old living in Kentucky with her uncle Emmet and grandmother Mawmaw. Sam's mother, Irene, has recently remarried and moved away to start a new family. Sam's father, Dwayne Hughes, was killed in the Vietnam War months before she was born.
The novel begins as Sam, Emmett, and Mawmaw travel to Washington, D.C., to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At dinner, Mawmaw wonders what kind of person Dwayne would have been if he had survived the war.
The novel flashes back to the summer events leading to the family's trip to the memorial. Sam finds herself at a crossroads in life after just graduating high school. She has no idea what she will do with her life and feels increasingly distant from her boyfriend Lonnie, who everyone assumes she will marry. Unsure of her own identity, she wants to know about the Vietnam war and her father, but Emmett is reluctant to tell her about the reality of the war.
Why are the adults so reluctant to tell Sam about the Vietnam War and her father?
Emmett's time in the war has scarred him physically and psychologically. He sufferers from PTSD and is covered with painful acne, which Sam believes is from exposure to Agent Orange. Emmett spends most of his days cooking for the family and attempting to fix up their crumbling house. His repairs only fix surface-level cracks and ignore the structural problems. When the family cat, Moon Pie, becomes infested with fleas, Emmett begins to fumigate the house with a series of powerful flea bombs.
Emmett soon realizes that Sam won't relent in her quest to learn more, so he brings her to meet a group of his veteran friends. The men slowly open up about their experiences in Vietnam, and Sam begins to see both the tremendous pain they've suffered and the lack of support they received upon return. Sam also finds herself attracted to one of the men, Tom, which further throws her life into turmoil.
The veterans organize a dance, which Sam convinces Emmett to attend to reunite him with his ex-girlfriend Anita. After the dance, Tom brings Sam home to his apartment, but the pair cannot have sex due to Tom's impotence, which he blames on the trauma of the war. Emmett disappears after the dance, and three days later, Irene, Sam's mother, brings him home. Sam asks her mother about her father Dwayne, but her mother only recalls their brief romance and admits they hardly knew each other before the war tore them apart.
What kind of problems do the veterans face in their everyday lives?
Irene suggests Sam asks Dwayne's estranged father for his notebook, which the army returned with his body. Sam borrows the journal but finds the handwriting almost indecipherable. Slowly she begins to discern the writing and is shocked by her father's account of his brutal actions and racist views of the enemy. Sam is shaken by these revelations and attempts to understand the soldier's mindset, which would cause people like her father and uncle to commit horrible deeds.
Unknowingly, Sam is suffering a mild form of poisoning from Emmett's attempts to rid the house of fleas. In an unstable condition, Sam reasons that she must stay overnight at the local swamp to reenact the conditions of life in war.
Through the night, Sam grows sicker. She becomes increasingly scared and anxious as brutal images from her father's notebook flash through her mind. When morning breaks, a paranoid Sam hears someone approaching the swamp and prepares to attack them. However, a distraught Emmett tracked her down through the night. The pair argue, and during the fight, Emmett breaks down and finally opens up about his experience in Vietnam.
In Country was adapted into a 1989 film starring Bruce Willis as Uncle Emmett.
Still haunted by her experiences in the swamp, Sam finds herself unmotivated and lost while Emmett feels revitalized at having finally opened up about his pain. He proposes the family visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The novel switches back to the present tense as the family locates Dwayne's name on the directory and visits his panel. Each of them touches Dwayne's character and feels some sense of closure. During the solemn silence, Emmett sits cross-legged in front of the names of the dead as a serene smile breaks across his face.
Is Sam able to find some sense of closure in the novel?
In Country features a range of characters connected to Sam's family. The book's most important characters are Sam, her uncle Emmett, and her deceased father, Dwayne.
The novel's protagonist is a 17-year-old girl who desperately wants to discover the truth about her father and the Vietnam War. Having just graduated from high school, Sam finds herself at a crossroads in life and unsure of her next steps. Realizing that she is almost the same age as her father when he died in Vietnam, Sam begins looking into her family's past to learn about her father and her identity. Protective of her uncle Emmet who still seems emotionally paralyzed by the war, Sam sets out to learn about the war and why it had such a massive impact on her life and her family.
Sam's uncle Emmett never recovered from his time in Vietnam; he cannot hold a job or maintain a relationship, and he spends most of his time isolated from others. Emmett's day revolts around cooking for the family and attempting to fix up the house. After returning from the war, Emmett joined a group of anti-war hippies and protested America's involvement in the war. When Sam's mother moved away to live with her new husband, Sam feels responsible for her uncle's well-being.
Although Dwayne does not physically appear in the novel, his shadow looms over Sam and her quest to discover the truth. Dwayne and Irene met as teenagers and were quickly married before Dwayne was deployed to Vietnam. Since Dwayne was killed in action months before Sam was born, she never got to meet her father. Dwayne's family is reluctant to face the reality of Dwayne's actions in the war and attempts to control his memory and legacy.
In Country examines themes of war and its long-lasting impact on those who serve and their families.
Although Sam was only a baby during the Vietnam War, her life and identity are impacted by her family's involvement in the conflict. Despite not having first-hand war experience, Sam can see the lasting impact of conflict through her uncle Emmett who bears the psychological and physical scars of having served. Like most of his veteran friends, Emmett carries a sense of guilt and shame from the war.
With In Country, Bobbie Ann Mason shows that war is not limited to soldiers but can also affect the lives of the soldier's family. Sam never met her father because of the war. This has left her confused and in search of answers about her own identity. This confusion is exacerbated by the silence surrounding the Vietnam War. Many Americans remained hesitant to talk about the conflict long after the war ended.
The war in Vietnam was a cultural turning point for America. America's involvement in foreign wars up until that point had been viewed as necessary for maintaining stability and freedom. However, people began questioning the government's goals and methods in waging Vietnam's long and costly war.
American involvement in Vietnam was initially viewed as part of the effort to stop the spread of Communism in Asia. When the first U.S. troops arrived in Saigon in December 1961, many people believed America was defending a democratic Vietnam government against Communist aggression. As time wore on, American casualties began to mount, and people started to question the justification for the war.
Between 1961-1973, hundreds of thousands of American troops served in Vietnam, but the conflict became bogged down with little strategic gain and no end. People began to see that the Vietnamese government was highly corrupt and authoritarian, causing many civilian deaths.
As the nightly news reported the bloody reality of the war, romantic notions of a just war disappeared. Many returning soldiers were vocally opposed to America's continued presence in Vietnam and joined the growing antiwar movement, which staged nationwide protests. This highly divisive period caused severe rifts in American society, some of which took decades to heal.
By the presidency of Richard Nixon, popular opinion had turned against the war, and many Americans supported a complete withdrawal from the country. The Paris Peace Accord of 1973 finalized America's exit from the conflict. Though the war was officially over, the conflict left a long and bitter legacy in American society. Many veterans silently bore their wounds.
In Country shows Mason's use of multiple symbols and offers an analysis of the war novel genre. Since the novel deals with the lasting impact of the Vietnam War, it is a prime example.
War novel: a work of military fiction and a literary genre that deals with the events and/or after-effects of combat. War novels can also focus on the impact of the conflict on the home front. Famous examples of war novels include Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929) and The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer.
Bobbie Ann Mason divides the book into three sections; the second section makes up the bulk of the book and takes the form of a flashback in past tense leading up to the events of the family's trip to Washington. The first and third sections are written in the present tense, giving the reader a clear sense of when the events are occurring.
Mason uses several symbols to reflect the story's deeper themes. The family home is a dilapidated and unstable structure that reflects Emmett's fragile state of mind. While he constantly tries to patch up and repair the house's exterior, he cannot fix the deep-set structural issues. Emmett cannot continue his life after returning from the war and is in a state of paralysis, slowly decaying like the house. The house and the family cat are infested with fleas, which are invisible, pervasive, and destructive. The fleas reflect Emmett's uncertain state of mind and paranoia.
Mason uses the birds as a symbol of catharsis and rebirth. Emmett finds escape through bird-watching, a hobby he uses to take his mind off his trauma. At the end of the book, Emmett seems to find peace at the veteran's memorial. Mason describes him in front of the panels as "his face bursts into a smile like flames" (Part III, Ch. 30). This imagery suggests the phoenix, a bird that rises from the flames of its predecessor, as a symbol of Emmett's rebirth. After finally confronting the painful past, he may be able to move on from his pain and suffering.
Some essential quotes from In Country illustrate how each of the characters have been affected by the Vietnam war.
Emmett came back from Vietnam, but Sam's father did not. After his discharge, Emmett stayed with his parents for two weeks, then left. He couldn't adjust." (Part II, Ch. 1)
Emmett's service in Vietnam irreversibly alters his life. Haunted by his traumatic experiences, Emmett remains paralyzed and unable to build a stable life. The novel highlights the long-term effects of war and the lack of support many veterans experience upon their return.
My mother never told me much about him, what he was like or what his favorite foods were or anything. I don't even know how tall he was or what kind of personality he had. He's just a face in a picture, but now I'm getting real curious." (Part II, Ch. 7)
Sam's story is driven by her need to find out about her father. Though his shadow looms over the entire family, many relatives hesitate to talk about him. This silence and hesitancy are similar to American society's reluctance to talk about the war in Vietnam.
The novel In Country tells the story of Sam Hughes, a young woman trying to gain a sense of her own identity and understand her father, who died in the Vietnam War.
In Country was written by Bobbie Ann Mason.
The central theme of In Country is the long-term impact war has on soldiers and their families.
The protagonist of In Country is 17-year-old Sam Hughes, who lost her father, Dwayne Hughes, in the Vietnam War. Sam's uncle, Emmett, is a Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD.
In the novel In Country, Moonpie, the family cat, has fleas.
In Country deals with the aftermath of which conflict?
At the start of the novel, the family is traveling to which landmark?
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
What is the name of the family pet?
Sam believes Emmett is suffering from the after-effects of exposure to _____________.
Emmett works as a janitor.
Bobbie Ann Mason uses the symbol of a _________ to represent Emmett's catharsis.
How does Sam learn about her father's experience in the war?
Which genre best describes In Country?
In Country contains both past and present tense narration.
Sam's mother is named _________.
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