Bobbie Ann Mason

Big Bertha Stories

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Big Bertha Stories Summary

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Set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Bobbie Ann Mason’s short story “Big Bertha Stories” (1986) concerns Jeanette who struggles with the erratic behavior of her husband, a strip miner and veteran suffering from PTSD. The story gets its title from “Big Bertha,” a fantastical mining machine about which Jeanette’s husband, Donald, spins constant yarns. Donald’s tales of war reflect a deeply misogynistic and racist worldview even as they signify his trauma, eliciting his wife and son’s sympathy. As the story progresses, Jeanette internalizes Donald’s trauma, while Donald’s trauma is never directly revealed. Included in many post-Vietnam anthologies, the story was celebrated for its complex yet humanizing treatment of veteran identity, PTSD, and domestic strife during wartime.

Big Bertha Stories begins as Donald tells Jeanette and their son about the giant machine known as Big Bertha, which trawls for ore at mining sites around Muhlenberg County. Donald is obsessed with comparing his current job to his military missions, and it becomes clear that he is still unable to escape his memories of war, two years after his discharge. Upon first returning from Vietnam, Donald seemed by all ordinary measures well adjusted to American society. He worked at a lumberyard and resumed his hobby of collecting and driving classic cars. He soon met Jeanette, got married in a matter of months, and had baby Rodney not long after. Yet, other aspects of Donald’s past hint at a more precarious mental state. Two years ago, Donald sabotaged a lumber order in order to get himself fired. He abruptly sold his prized classic Chevy without explaining himself and started acting strangely in multiple other ways. Donald now operates a steam shovel near Big Bertha, only returning home sporadically to visit Jeanette and Rodney.

Donald continues describing Big Bertha, whose looming presence in his life becomes clear. Thinking of her as sentient and omnipotent, he greatly exaggerates her size and power—claiming that she is large enough to see across the United States and that her exhaust is powerful enough to generate tornadoes. Rodney, too young to distinguish truth from fantasy, is enamored of Donald’s tales. Donald’s insistence on telling these stories to Rodney indicates a deep desire to connect that is thwarted by his trauma. He supplements his stories with props and gestures—for example, he uses the blade from a food processor to illustrate the blade of a helicopter. These elaborate demonstrations grasp for some deeper, but incommunicable, meaning. At the end of each story, Donald expresses frustration that Rodney and Jeanette will never understand.

As the plot progresses, Donald’s frustrated stories become increasingly involved and desperate. One of his longest stories attempts to describe a former lover, Phan, a Vietnamese woman whose village was ultimately destroyed by American troops. Donald’s inability to describe the emotional content of these memories signals his ongoing emotional and sexual impotency. Feeling alienated from Donald, Jeanette goes to a psychologist. The psychologist defers to textbook lingo, failing to address the reality of Donald’s trauma. Similarly, Jeanette’s mother offers only superficial advice, suggesting she pray more and bring the whole family to church. A social worker, Miss Bailey, visits the family home to meet with Rodney, who has been experiencing nightmares and drawing violent and sexually graphic pictures. After seeing Rodney’s drawing of Big Bertha’s breasts, Miss Bailey disengages from the family with revulsion.

Donald’s trauma symptoms worsen to the point where he checks himself into the veterans’ hospital. He imagines the trip as a restorative sea voyage with Big Bertha. Jeanette returns to her waitressing job and futilely attempts to make Rodney feel better. She even buys him a trampoline. Ironically, at the end of the story, this gift that was intended to heal only advances her internalized trauma: she dreams that she is bouncing atop a pile of corpses.