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Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) is considered one of the finest books about the Vietnam War. Far from a combat story of pride and glory, it is a compassionate tale of the American soldier, brimming with raw honesty and thoughtful reflection.

The book’s narrator follows a platoon of infantrymen through the jungles of Vietnam. We see them trudge through the muck of a constant downpour, get hit by sniper fire, pull body parts out of a tree, laugh while they tell their stories to each other, and fall silent when faced with making sense of it all – both in the moment and twenty years later.

The book is split into a lush mosaic of vignettes drawn from O’Brien’s own experiences. The title story describes what the soldiers must lug with them – both literally and figuratively – as they march: food, canteens, flak jackets, and weapons, as well as grief, terror, secrets, and memories.

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NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

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