The Red Convertible, written by Louise Erdrich is a story about Native American culture. It is written in a style that is easy to read for persons who may not be familiar to their culture. Im going to examine the character of Henry Lamertine Jr. Lamertine starts the story being a happy free spirited young man and through the intrusion of western ideologies and unfortunate circumstances he lost his purpose. Eventually the anguish and turmoil he was suffering in his mind got the best of him and he died a broken man.
In the beginning of the story Lamertine is described as having a large muscular build and a strong profile. He is easy going, spontaneous, and his sense of humor is mentioned a few times throughout the story. Eldrich associates Larmertine with the warrior spirit, He was a brick outhouse anywayHe had a big nose and sharp as a hatchet, like the nose on a red tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, whose profile is all along North Dakota Highways (Eldrich, 362).
The story is told By Lamertines younger brother Lyman Lamertime. He idolizes Lamertine and they develop a close bond that is represented by the joint purchase of a red convertible. The red convertible gives the brothers a freedom they took advantage of. They traveled for a summer spending days driving and relaxing ending up in Alaska. Eventually this trip came to an end because Lamertime was drafted by the Army, later to be recruited by the Marines, to serve in the Vietnam War. This war ends up ruining Henry Lamertines psyche. At the center of The Red Convertible is the relationship between Lyman and Henry. Lyman Lamertines motivation for telling the story is to embrace and preserve his brothers memory (The Red).
Lyman Lamertine naively thought his brother would come back the same person as when he left. Henry Lamertine was a little wiser, he wasnt sure he was going to come back at all and in a lot of ways he never did come back. He tried to give Lyman the red convertible twice to let him know he needed to accept this fate and Lyman refused. Jennifer Bussey who wrote a criticism for the story states, These are significant episodes in the story because they reveal Henrys love for Lyman. As a Chippewa, Henry learned to be reserved in expressing his feelings; his culture expected men to refrain from emotional displays. Because of this he would not tell his brother outright that he loved him, wanted him to be independent, or feared that he might not return from the war. Instead he expressed these feelings by offering the car to his brother (Bussey, 6).
War is a terrible, life shattering, unfortunate circumstance. Henry was unlucky and was drafted. Lyman says in the story, I always had good luck with numbers, and never worried about the draft myself. I never even had to think about what my number was. But Henry was never lucky in the same way as me (Eldrich.362). Henry was gone for at least three years. When he returns he had been damaged. Pratima Duttman, who wrote a review of The Red Convertible thinks that it is this part of the story that reveals Erdrichs intent, Western influence has corrupted Henry and has taken his free American Indian Spirit away. Lyman, baffled by with his brothers spiritual deterioration, attempts to rectify his condition by buying a television set, a dominant symbol of the west (Dutta, 1). The Television set worsens Henrys condition and eventually Lyman tampers with it so the picture doesnt come in clear. The western idea of assimilation is really what kills Henry and it cannot be done away with. He is unable to find a middle ground that satisfies his native side but allows him to function within western culture. Im sure Henry was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, a disorder that was not understood at that time. He was emotionally detached and unwilling to talk about his experiences and not sure how to function at home. From the Native American perspective Henrys inability to cope with life stems from the conflict between his experiences in the Vietnam War and his native understanding of war, death and honor. He is a victim of a war that is not of his own making. In short stories for students in the Gale Reference Library it states, The Indian brave no longer fights for his own land and food but in a foreign war in which he has no stake(The Red). The Vietnam War was inconceivable for Henry and he was unable to drive the turmoil out of him and his family was unable to cope.
Henry Lamertines family didnt know what to do with him. It grieved them to see Henry anguished but chose to take no action, While Henry was not around we talked about what was going to happen to him. There were no Indian doctors on the reservationWe were afraid if we brought Henry to a regular hospital they would keep him (Eldrich, 363). Henrys mother didnt have any faith in the hospital; she felt they wouldnt fix him, they would just fill him full of drugs. Lyman had the idea to bang up the red convertible so maybe Henry would be inclined to fix it. Lyman had kept it in top shape while Henry was gone but took a hammer to it one night when Henry was away thinking the car may put Henry on track to find some purpose in his life. It took a month but finally worked and Lyman thought maybe things had turned around for Henry. Lyman thought in repairing the car Henry would repair himself too. Brian Sutton writes in a review of The Red Convertible, Hoping that Henry will decide to repair the car and in doing so will begin to repair himself. Henry takes the bait, and for awhile it appears that he, too, is convertible, that both car and man can be salvaged (Sutton, 2).
We sense that the repairs are only superficial at least in Henrys case and he realizes this too. After fixing the car the brothers go for a ride to the Red River.
The mood of the story shifts and it turns dark after a brief spark of hope and we realize Henry has given up. Henry gives his brother the last little bit of him he has left and then walks into the river. This is not wholly tragic however as the native culture interprets death differently than western culture, Immersion in water symbolizes a return to the pre-formal, a total regeneration, a new birth, for immersion means a dissolution of forms, a reintegration into the formlessness of preexistence, and emerging from the water is a repletion of the act of creation in which form was first expressed(The Red).Native American spirituality embraces the idea of reincarnation. From their perspective Henry did an honorable thing, his warrior spirit was broken.
The Red Convertible gives us a look into the Native American Culture many westerners have not seen or are able to understand. Henry Larmertine Jr. is a complex character that represents the conflicting cultures of the Native American world and western world. Erdrich captures the true essence of being native, exemplifying the fact that even in the presence of oppressing western influences, the true native spirit can never be lost.
Erdrich, Louise The Red Convertible