Ambiguity in In the Lake of the Woods



“…We all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into the shadows (301).” Reality is relative to the observer; beings so, history is what one makes it. The main character in In the Lake of the Woods is a man named John Wade; the reader knows he is a lawyer, a politician and a Vietnam War vet. He and his wife, Kathy, are vacationing in a cabin by a lake to get over a terrible loss in an election after some information about his past in the war surfaced. Some how, his wife disappears. Later, Wade runs away, having nothing to stay around for; his wife mysteriously vanishes, he is suspected for murder and his political career is over. The book is written to look as a documentary of these events, containing chapters of history, evidence, and hypothesizes about Kathy’s whereabouts. Also, the book has no ending, attempting to mimic life; there is no neat and sugary “The End”. All this is a ploy to make this fictitious novel more real and convincing in order to show that facts are only lies that one believes; or that nothing is a fact. Throughout In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien is making that point by including information on the Vietnam War, including the author’s comments and Wade’s behavior.


Tim O’Brien incorporates certain things about the war that prove his case that facts depend on the observer. In a war, commands are often delayed, ignored or not delivered at all, causing massive problems and result in mistakes. The Vietnam War is no different from any other. In this book we are given the example of the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968 Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, was given orders by Lt. William Calley to destroy the village of My Lai. Calley believed the people of My Lai were all Viet Cong and/or Viet Cong supporters; to him, that was the truth. When William Calley was court-martialed, in his testimony he said:


Q: What were they firing at?


A: At the enemy, sir.


Q: Did you see them (the enemy)?


A: I wasn’t discriminating.


Q: what do you mean you weren’t discriminating?


A: I didn’t discriminate between individuals in the village, sir.


They were all the enemy, they were all to be destroyed, sir.


(141)


Another man believes that babies were going to attack him and that was why he killed them. Some men have even blocked out the memory of it all together. Even though Wade doesn’t exist, he forced himself to believe he was involved. This shows that the event changes from person to person, proving O’Brien’s theory.


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O’Brien also includes his own comments in the footers explaining to the reader that there are no facts or endings. After comparing his own experience in the war to Wade’s he comments, “I find myself wondering if these old tattered memories weren’t lifted from someone else’s life, or from a piece of fiction I once read or once heard about. My own war does not belong to me (298).” O’Brien is not even sure if his past is what he really experienced, but none the less, to him he lived through the bombings and the deaths and he saw certain unthinkable things and is only now doubting his recollections. O’Brien also says that the story of John Wade seems more true to him then his own memories. He is showing the reader that ambiguity is part of everyone’s life; no one will ever know what’s true and what’s make-believe. He also warns the reader there are no answers, “…Kathy Wade is forever missing, and if you require solutions, you will have to look beyond these pages. Or read a different book (30).”


There is also the subject of John Wade. Since Wade was about nine, he’s studied magic. When he was about 14, after his father’s death, he would practice magic in front of a mirror. In front of the mirror “everything was possible, even happiness (65)” What he saw in the mirror, he considered true and believed it. Wade is also known as Sorcerer. When he is Sorcerer, he can do anything or be anyone he wants; and there’s always a