Closure at the Wall
In the novel In Country, Bobbie Ann Mason writes about a young woman and her uncle searching to heal their scars caused by the Vietnam War. Sam Hughes, the young woman and Emmett Smith, her uncle, travel to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1984. Their destination is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the Wall, possibly one of the nation’s most dramatic monuments. Some come to the Wall in dedication, while others need to find answers or lay something to rest; Sam and Emmett venture there for the latter.
Emmett Smith returned from the war, but it never really ended for him. He didn’t come home with gun shot wounds or list limbs, but according to Sam; he shows the effects of Agent Orange. The chemical, Agent Orange, was sprayed on the dense jungles in Vietnam to make the leaves fall off of the trees. American troops often got sprayed and later suffered from various conditions, such as, skin rashes, painful headaches, breathing problems and even cancer. Sam is very concerned with Emmett’s symptoms. She constantly asks him to go to a doctor and she even tells him to write into the newspaper medical columnist, Dr. Dobbs. “Why don’t you write and ask him about those firecrackers in your head? And ask him why that pimple on your nose hasn’t healed in two months? And why you’ve got pimples creeping down the back of your neck? He’ll say it’s Agent Orange, I bet you money” (53-54).
The war mentally upsets Emmett as well. Most veterans returned from the war and readjusted well, but this is not the case with Emmett. “After his discharge…Emmett could not adjust” (23). At first, he lived with his niece Sam, and his sister Irene, who babied him. He attempted to go to college and worked odd jobs, but neither lasted. He is left unemployed, despite the fact that he owes the V.A. over five hundred dollars for checks he continued to collect even after he quit college (28).
Since Emmett does not work, he spends his time doing various nonproductive things. For instance, many mornings he meets fellow veterans at McDonald’s. During the rest of the day, he watches M*A*S*H, plays Atari, obsesses over killing the fleas that his cat, Moon Pie, brings in, and he soon begins to dig around the base of the house. Emmett says he digs because there is a leak, but really the house and its foundation symbolize the stability of his life and family. Sam is concerned with Emmett’s behavior and confronts him; “You know what you’re doing? You’re just digging yourself a foxhole to hide in. Like the enemy was all around you. But it’s not. There’s a whole wide world out there. There’s plenty of things to do and places to go. Don’t you know that?” (190)
Despite Sam’s concern for Emmett, she goes through life just as confused. Sam Hughes is an eighteen-year-old girl who lives in Hopewell, Kentucky with Emmett, her uncle. Sam has completed high school and is trying to decide what to do with the life that lay ahead of her. However, before she does this, she must discover who she is and what she longs to find. Since she has just graduated, Sam is faced with a major decision, which college to attend. Her mother, Irene, wants Sam to go to the University of Kentucky, her almumator. While Sam prefers Murray State University because it has a better track team, “she hoped to commute”, and it isn’t the same school her mother went to (28-29). Irene is remarried and lives in Lexington with her husband, “Lorenzo Jones” and her daughter, Sam’s half sister, Heather (56). Sam lives in the past, while her mother moves on without her and proceeds to move toward the future with her new family. Irene tries to break all ties to the past whereas Sam attempts to piece them together.
Sam longs to discover the mystery of the war’s effect on her. She tries to relive the war era, through listening to Beatles Records and watching M*A*S*H reruns with Emmett. Like Emmett and his feeling of worthlessness upon returning from war, Sam feels that she has no other purpose than to help resolve the problems of those close to her:
Maybe she was going nuts. It wasn’t just Tom. Or just Emmett. Or Lonnie. Or Dawn’s predicament. It was her. She was the center of all these impossible dramas, and somehow she was feeling that it was all up to her. But she didn’t really know where she was, or who she would be if all those people left town and walked into the sunset to live happily ever after. If she got all of them straightened out, what would she do? (178)
Essentially, Sam feels lonely and realizes she has been so involved in everyone around her that she hasn’t been able to help herself. Before she finds herself, she must fulfill her desire to know her father, Dwayne Hughes, who died in Vietnam. If she becomes familiar with her father, the emptiness within her will be filled and she can finally begin to discover herself. Her search begins with letters that her father wrote her mother, which she finds in her mother’s closet. Sam arranges them chronologically and proceeds to read them, hoping to find out who Dwayne Hughes was. While reading the letters, Sam finds proof that her father did choose her name. However, she feels “cheated” by this because, “He was counting on a boy. Samantha was an afterthought” (182).After reading all of the letters, she doesn’t feel any closer to her father, in fact she feels very unfulfilled. Sam realized, “The dead took their secrets with them. She wondered how far to go in honoring the dead if the dead offer you nothing except a little mindless protection, by keeping their secrets from you” (182). These letters do not give Sam the information she wants to know; what Vietnam was like for her father and all of the other soldiers. In hopes of finding this, Sam goes to visit her grandparent’s farm.
At the farm, Sam discovers many things, such as old pictures of her father and most importantly, his journal from the war. After reading the journal, Sam is “humiliated and disgusted” by the war and those who fought in it, including Emmett and her father (205). Sam comes home and finds the house flea bombed and vacant, and with her new found information she gathers a few things, leaves the journal for Emmett and runs off to Cawood Pond. At Cawood Pond, a nature reserve, Sam attempts to experience the feeling of being in the war. Following Sam’s night at Cawood Pond, Emmett finds her. He says, “You think you can go through what we went through our in the jungle, but you can’t. This place is scary…but it’s not the…” (220). She understands that it is impossible to recreate the terror and atmosphere of the Vietnam War, but her adventure helped her to ease her disgust of those who fought (209).
In light of their denial to get out of past, Emmett suggests that he and Sam visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. The lives of both Sam and Emmett change upon viewing the Wall. Emmett is finally able to put the war behind him and realize that it is over. He is overcome with a sense of relief. It is not clear whether Emmett is concentrating on a specific name when this enlightenment occurs, but either way, his life will be forever changed. Emmett is able to begin healing and move on. Sam’s life is also effected greatly. Seeing her father’s name, along with the thousands of others, Sam is able to finally respect him and feel closure in the life of her father.Although she still does not truly know him, she is now able to take advantage of what she does know. What greatly effects Sam even more is when she spots her own name on the wall and runs her fingers over it. At this moment, Sam is able to let go of the war and the burdens she carries of those close to her to find herself.
The Wall, a black, granite, V-shaped memorial, is the home of more than 58,000 inscribed names of American men and women who were killed in the Vietnam War. At first sight, the memorial seems somber and intimidating, however, it has, is and will remain a source of faith and closure. Sam’s grandmother says, “Coming up on this wall all of the sudden and seeing how black it was, it was so awful, but then I came down in it and saw that white carnation blooming out of that crack and it gave me hope” (245).