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Letters About Literature National Winners 2012

National Winner, Level 3: Alexandra McLaughlin, Minneapolis, MN

Dear Tim O'Brien,

A $12 digital watch from Target. A bottle of Ibuprofen. A heart-shaped gold ring my Mom wore when she was a teenager. Vanilla-scented hand lotion. The memory of my mom lying lifeless and still on a hospital bed, her cold hands no longer squeezing back. A shoebox containing a lifetime of letters, some creased, worn, and stained with tears. My sister's sleepy but comforting voice through the phone at 2 AM, when I lie awake, haunted by the past and crippled by fears. I know. It will be okay. I love you.

These are the things I carry.

Two years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school, my Mom had a sudden heart attack while running. She collapsed on the side of the road and died instantly. My English class read The Things They Carried a few months later. What I expected was just another book about war. What I found was a message that spoke directly to my soul. Your book came when I felt my suburban town was the quintessential land of lollipops and ignorance, when I feared real pain and heartache were foreign to everyone but me. It came when I needed it the most.

I've wanted to become a writer ever since I could remember. Yet after the death of my mom, words seemed weak and cruelly useless. After all, a world where my Mom could have a physical and be characterized as the "picture of perfect health" and then die a week later was not a world in which words were valuable. Writing could not change the past. Writing could not change anything. That was what I thought until I read your book.

I was not even alive during the Vietnam War, yet you brought me to that place. Through Rat Kiley's torture of the baby water buffalo, you stunned me with a gruesome physical image of emotional grief. If you could help me understand a war fought halfway across the world three decades before I was born, maybe I too could reach others with my words.

You tell a story about Norman Bowker returning from war. He overflows with terrible memories and stories, yet he has no one to tell. His father never asks. His neighbors never ask. No one ever asks. This is how I felt after my mom died. My naive and trusting demeanor shattered, I could no longer view the world the same way. I was annoyed, even angry at the unchanged dynamics at school and with my friends. My life had just been ripped apart and in those first intense months of grief, it seemed as though no one even noticed.

Worst of all, no one asked about my mom. People were so afraid of saying something wrong they closed their mouths and kept it that way. It was as if my mom: who woke up every morning to run because it made her feel alive, who spent hours in her garden, who sang in the kitchen as she washed dishes, who loved her children so much she lay awake at night worrying about us, it was as if this woman had never existed.

I could not understand this but I was being forced to accept it. When the soldier eventually killed himself, I was jolted awake. Why are death, war, and loss such taboo subjects? Why must we bury them down deep inside, cover our fears and uncertainties with a strained smile, and ignore a whole part of ourselves? No longer was I going to hide the past and the pain. I wouldn't give up because people were unwilling to listen. I would spin words into poetry and attempt to define the indefinable. Circumstances had broken my heart, weighed down my shoulders, and given me a life-long burden to carry. Yet I was unwilling to succumb to the same fate as the disillusioned soldier. I would not be shattered.

Your last chapter simultaneously opened fresh wounds and gave me the first real comfort since my mom's death. I cried when Linda died. It was tragic. She was so young. I thought of my Mom and it was almost unbearable. However, I realized from your book that stories could keep a person alive. Stories allow us to visit the past how it was: untainted in its beauty and unmarked by death or struggle.

Thank you for telling these stories, Mr. O'Brien. Thank you for the painfully honest and emotional descriptions of war. Thank you for giving me comfort and hope in a time that was clouded by darkness and uncertainty. Your poignant words in The Things They Carried will forever be included in the things I carry. You helped me see that I am not alone.

Alexandra McLaughlin