'In Country' by Bobbie Ann Mason (1985)

In Country was a bit of a disappointment for me. I read and really enjoyed Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories so my hopes were high. And while I enjoyed the novel, I had difficulty connecting with the characters and the setting of the story, which might have been purposeful on Mason’s part. She seems to suggest the impossibility of recapturing a historical event through narrative. All of her references to temporal and regional aspects of culture, such as the song titles and K-Marts and McDonald’s-es, prohibit both Sam and the reader from delving into the experience of another time.

Mason’s message of the novel is fairly obvious: wars may end but their effects never dwindle. Several recurring images in the novel underscore this theme: the “new” song by The Beatles, a group that disbanded in 1970, appearing on the airwaves in 1984; information about Sam’s father being revealed, such as the fact that he chose her name; references to the veteran whose daughter was affected by Agent Orange even though she was never in the war. Even Sam’s observations such as this one, “Down the hall, Emmett belched. It was the tomato ketchup in the lasagna,” are also similar images.

All the veterans in the novel seem to be haunted by the war in some way, even those who deny that they think about the war. These men reminded me of a study, which found that men who fought in Vietnam had difficulties reintegrating in U.S. society when they returned. In Vietnam, they had been acting out a “warrior” version of masculinity and lost that status upon returning. They did not know how to reconnect with normal masculine roles. Pete seems to be the best example of this observation, with his inability to keep a job and his supposed keeping of ears of the North Vietnamese. Pete even admits to Sam that he almost misses Vietnam in a way. Jim, though he doesn’t seem to valorize his experience in Vietnam, remains deeply involved with the War. He works with veterans affected by Agent Orange to demand reparation from the government and urges people to be tested. For the dance that he arranges, Jim tries to recreate objects and weapons from the war, though everyone notes that they are not the same — the guns are only toys — or they seem out of place — Emmett says that a rations can looks like an antique. Tom is also haunted by the war, the memories of which seem to render him impotent.

Emmett’s experience in Vietnam seems to have affected his gender identity, as he exhibits more feminine qualities: he has a deep connection to the home and tries to make it sound by fixing the crack in the foundation and flea bombing the house; similarly, he has something of a caretaker role toward Sam as he is the one who cooks for them; and finally, most obviously, Emmett cross-dresses. He associates the War with the masculine, evidenced in his comment that a cardboard tank at the dance looks like “an elephant’s peter.” According to Mark Graybill’s essay “Reconstructing/deconstructing genre and gender: postmodern identity in Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country and Josephine Humphreys’s Rich in Love,” his search to find the masculine is represented by his search for the egret as well as other bird imagery. I’m not sure I agree with Graybill, but I’ll return to that later.

Samantha is also on a quest similar to Emmett’s, though she is trying to connect to the feminine, according to Graybill. Even though Sam prefers the more masculine shortening of her first name and her father expected her to be a boy, I never thought that Sam exhibited particularly masculine qualities. Her quest throughout the novel, characterized by cat imagery, is for her father — the missing masculine influence in her life. Her mother did not remarry until Sam was older and, though she grew up with Emmett, he did not provide a fatherly influence nor a masculine one because, as stated earlier, he is dominated by the anima. Her father dying in the War has made Sam insatiably curious about the Vietnam War, but perhaps her endeavor to understand the experience is also her attempt to understand the masculine, or at least the “warrior” masculine that perhaps Sam has valorized due to her father’s death. Hearing the experience of the veterans — from their spouses, from journals, and from the veterans themselves — ultimately seems to disgust Sam. Learning of the soldiers collecting ears from the Vietnamese, her father poking a dead Vietnamese man with a stick and calling him a “gook” pushes Sam to revile those involved in the War. Only when Emmett reveals his experience does Sam come to something of an acceptance of what her father and her uncle had done.

So back to Graybill’s assertions that Emmett seeks the masculine and Sam the feminine. I think that actually it’s the opposite. Emmett’s quest is represented by his search for an egret, a bird he first saw in Vietnam. Like the other vets, Vietnam haunts Emmett and he, despite his dislike of the experience, does try to recapture it in some way. But unlike Pete and Jim who supposedly still own or try to recreate symbols of violence, Emmett is looking for a bird, something beautiful and alive rather than a force of violence and destruction. Samantha’s journey to understand the experience and the violence of the War is characterized by cat imagery: the haunting and fleeting Beatles’ song is entitled “Leave My Kitten Alone” and when she and Tom have their unsuccessful sexual encounter she feels for his erection and feels “a pile of kittens” instead. The two journeys are obviously related, and the relationship between the two representative animals is that of predator (cat) and prey (bird). Sam’s animal is associated with more masculine qualities, not Emmett’s. The climax of the novel happens during Sam’s night at the pond and her and Emmett’s confrontation the following morning. From her night at Cawood Pond, Sam feels as though she has finally connected with the experience of surviving in Vietnam — her search for the masculine has been successful. Emmett’s journey also comes to an end when he has a tearful, emotional outpouring, fully connecting to the feminine.

I do agree with Graybill that Sam’s experiences ultimately lead to her having a “healthfully androgynous ego.” The instigator of Sam’s journey seems to be her mother embracing the feminine roles of wife and mother, which disgust Sam. But through her quest, Sam seems to become more comfortable with her body. After her encounter with Tom, she has a different understanding of her body: “She imagined him driving up now. ‘I came over to play with your breasts,’ he might say.” Dawn’s pregnancy, which precludes Dawn’s desire “to play daddy” because she’s “sick of playing mommy,” and Sam’s mother’s home life, with her dull spouse and baby, repulse Sam at first, but by the end of the novel she seems more comfortable with her half-sister. She reconnects with her mother by giving her the cat statue. Her quest for the extreme masculine exhibited in war leads to her achieving a balance between the masculine and feminine. Emmett too finds that balance as he is able to smile, staring at the names of his friends at the Vietnam Memorial.