“The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich’s Essay
“The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich’s
Little boys, young men, and even adult men all at one point or another develop and share some type of bond with their brother. Whether it is a tree house, sports, movies, music, or perhaps an event or particular incident, brothers always seem to have some common thing they can share and identify with, which brings them closer and acts as the foundation for their relationship. For Lyman and Henry, the narrator and his brother in Louise Erdrich’s short story “The Red Convertible”, it was a red Oldsmobile convertible that they shared, and it was that car that brought them closer together. They purchased the car together in Winnipeg, drove all over the country one summer together, and shared a lot of time and memories together in that car. However, it was more than just a car they took a road trip in. Henry and Lyman’s Oldsmobile convertible was not just a means of transportation or a possession they both shared and owned, but rather a bond between two brothers and a direct representation of their relationship.
Lyman and Henry hang on to the red convertible even when they do not have to because of what the car represents and what it means to the two of them. Lyman mentions several times throughout the story that “money came easy” to him. When Henry leaves for the War in Vietnam he tells Lyman that the car is his now. Rather than get rid of the beat up convertible, Lyman says, “In those years I’d put his car into almost perfect shape. I always thought of it as his car while he was gone, even though when he left he said, “Now it’s yours,” and threw me his key.” (438). It is evident that Lyman did not get rid of the car and even fixed it up because of what it meant to him and his brother. For Lyman, someone who has money, to hang on to a beat up car instead of going out and buying a new one, proves how special the convertible was to him, and more importantly how special his relationship with his brother was to him. When Henry returns home from the war it is almost as if he is a zombie.
“Henry Junior returns home changed from a once easy-going youth to a withdrawn, tense shell of a man” (Beidler 178). The only time he sits still is when he is watching TV, and even then it is like he is under hypnosis. “He was not easy. He sat in his chair gripping the armrests with all his might, as if the chair itself was moving at a high speed and if he let go at all he would rocket forward and maybe crash right through the set.” (439). Lyman, in the attempt to get Henry out of his post war trance, beats on the car badly with a hammer, hoping that Henry will focus his time and energy on fixing up the old, beat up car. Even though the car is all beat up, Henry chooses to fix it up, just like Lyman suspected. Henry could have just as easily decided to get rid of the car or sell it, but his passion to rebuild the car proves that he too loves the red convertible because of what it represents and means to the two of them. The red convertible’s physical condition changes throughout the story.
Just like any car, it accumulates wear and tear and some damages. The condition of the car reflects what is going on in the brother’s lives as well as the condition of their relationship. When they first buy the car, their relationship is new and blossoming. Henry and Lyman are young and out traveling, about to begin enjoying their summer. “There it was, parked, large as life. Really as if it was alive. I thought of the word repose, because the car wasn’t simply stopped, parked or whatever. That car reposed, calm and gleaming, a FOR SALE sign in its left front window” (437). Erdrich alludes to new beginnings and the idea that the car is very much alive, just like Lyman and Henry’s relationship when they first see and buy the car. There is a feeling of buying a new shiny car, a new season, freshness, cleanliness, and just an overall feeling of comfort surrounding Henry and Lyman and their new purchase together.
After their summer of freedom has ended, and Henry gets drafted and sent over to Vietnam to fight in the war, Lyman is forced to put his relationship with his brother on hold, so ultimately he doesn’t drive the car or put any work into it for that matter. The car is up on blocks, not moving, at a standstill, just like their relationship. Eventually, Lyman makes sure that the car is in perfect shape for when Henry comes home, in hopes that they’ll be able to pick up where they left off spending time together, traveling in their convertible. Lyman tries to inject the convertible with new life, while he and Henry try to start their relationship over. Henry clearly is not the same man upon returning from the war, and his relationship with his brother begins deteriorating because of the effects of the mental and physical trauma he has suffered overseas. Just like their relationship is suffering damages, the convertible soon begins to suffer damages as well at the hands of Lyman and his hammer.
Of course when Henry drowns at the end of the story, Lyman turns the lights on to the convertible and pushes it into the river to be with his brother. Obviously Lyman’s brother died that night, his relationship with his brother died that night, and he decided that their car should be at the bottom of the Red River along with Henry, so the red convertible died that night too. The two of them endured so much together and apart from one another, and every time there was a change in their lives, the convertible underwent changes too. After Henry drowns and the lights die on the Oldsmobile, there is a sense of symbolism involved with the river that ties together along with the symbol of the car and the theme of brotherhood. “It is finally dark. And then there is only the water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and running” (442).
The way Erdrich ends the story gives the reader the idea of eternal life. The river will always be going and running, it will always be in motion and will never run dry, just like Henry and Lymans relationship and love for each other will always be eternally flowing. In Native American culture they are very in touch with nature and it is involved in their way of life. “Native Americans have traditionally spoken of Mother Earth and Father Heaven, Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun as ancestors from whom they trace their very being. From ancient times, Native Americans have tried to live in harmony with the elements and forces of nature (Noe 10). The river can be seen as something with continuous life and motion, a way for Henry and Lyman’s relationship and their bond with the Oldsmobile to never dim, fade out, or die. Henry and Lyman had a great relationship and shared a lot together, but it wasn’t enough for Henry to block out the horror and tragedy he experienced in Vietnam.
Although he says he is just jumping in the river to cool off, clearly it is a suicide. He fixed up the red convertible to give to Lyman “for good”. He jumps in the river with his boots on, it is highly doubtful he had another pair of boots to change in to. Granted, Henry was not all there, mentally, after the war, but physically he was made out to be in great shape. Henry was a Marine, yet he couldn’t stay afloat in the current of the Red River, however Lyman who was chubby and out of shape jumped in the river after him and eventually pulled himself out. Henry didn’t struggle or panic which is what all drown victims do, he just very calmly and quietly says “My boots are filling” and floats off downstream.
Although Henry seemed to be getting back to his normal self, talking more and smiling, working on the car and spending time with his brother, he obviously was still a broken man. Lyman is filled with such joy for his brother and their red convertible Oldsmobile in the beginning of “The Red Convertible”. It truly is a tragedy the way Henry exits his brother’s life. However, it is bittersweet that Lyman lets the bond they shared, their red convertible, rest at the bottom of the Red River along with his brother.
Beidler, Peter G. A Reader’s Guide to the Novels of Louise Erdrich. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006. 178-181.
Erdrich, Louise. “The Red Convertible.” Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 2007. 436-442.
Noe, Winfried. Native American Astrology: The Wisdom of the Four Winds. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2006. 10-11.