28 pages 56 minutes read

Louise Erdrich

The Red Convertible

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1974

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Summary: “The Red Convertible”

Content Warning: This guide contains references to war-related trauma, suicide, and systemic racism and violence against Indigenous Americans.

“The Red Convertible” is a short story that explores themes of Coming of Age and The Trauma of War through the lives of two young Chippewa men. Protagonist Lyman Lamartine reflects on his relationship with his brother, Henry Junior, before, during, and after Henry’s time serving in the Vietnam War. Lyman focuses on the period when he and his brother co-owned the red Oldsmobile convertible of the title. The story appeared in The Mississippi Valley Review in 1981 as Louise Erdrich’s first ever publication (Erdrich, Louise. “Acknowledgments.” The Red Convertible: New and Collected Stories, HarperCollins, 2009, pp. 495). It later became a chapter in Erdrich’s debut novel, Love Medicine (Holt Press, 1984), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich continues to enjoy a celebrated career as a writer of short stories, novels, nonfiction, children’s literature, and poetry.

This guide references the story as it appears in the paperback release, Love Medicine: Newly Revised Edition (Harper Perennial, 2016). Each chapter of the novel includes a parenthetical year in the title and an epigraph naming the speaker. When the story appears in isolation, these details are removed.

The story opens with a declaration from narrator Lyman Lamartine: “I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation” (177). Lyman clarifies that he and his brother owned the car together, but his brother, Henry Junior, is now the sole owner. Lyman goes on a brief tangent about the talent for making money that enabled him to buy the car in the first place; he began working at the Joliet Café when he was 15, and by the time he was 16, he was a partial manager (though a tornado destroyed the café soon afterward).

It is shortly after the Joliet’s destruction that he and Henry first see the car. They behold the car with awe and reverence, and between Lyman’s savings and Henry’s checks, they have just enough money to buy it on a whim. They embark on a summer road trip, driving from their home on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota through South Dakota and Montana. They pick up Susy, a hitchhiker who wears her hair in two buns, and drive her home to Chicken, Alaska. The brothers spend the rest of the summer camping in Susy’s yard. They “never [want] to leave” their peaceful life in Alaska (180), but the end of summer signals their need to return home. Susy says goodbye by finally letting down her hair. It’s so long it touches the ground. Lyman fondly recalls the image of Henry with Susy on his shoulders, pretending her hair is his as the two of them twirl around.

The brothers get home just in time for Henry to leave for bootcamp. He becomes a marine, which doesn’t surprise Lyman, given his brother’s strong physique. Henry is then deployed to Vietnam. Although he tries to give Lyman full custody of the car before he left, Lyman still “[thinks] of it as his car while he [is] gone” and keeps it on cinder blocks (182). Three years later, Henry comes home changed by the war. He is alternately silent and angry, and he spends much of his time in front of the TV; on one occasion, he is so mesmerized by what he’s watching that he bites through his lip. Lyman and his mother discuss consulting a doctor but are reluctant to do so, both because there is no Chippewa doctor on the reservation and because they fear Henry will end up permanently hospitalized.

In a desperate attempt to return Henry to his former self, Lyman mangles the Oldsmobile with a crowbar. This scheme seems to work at first. Henry’s behavior improves as he spends all day and night working on the car. When spring arrives, Henry suggests they pack a cooler and “take that old shitbox for a spin” (185). Lyman’s little sister, Bonita, takes a picture of them before they set off. Lyman later tacks that picture up in his room, but the darkness in Henry’s expression disturbs him so much that he puts it away again.

After Bonita takes the picture, the brothers go to the Red River to see the high water. The scenic drive puts both brothers in a good mood. However, something about the river nearly bursting from its banks causes Henry to withdraw again and Lyman to panic. He shakes stony-faced Henry until Henry breaks, saying, “I can’t help it. It’s no use” (187). Henry confesses he knows Lyman wrecked the car on purpose and says he only fixed it so Lyman could have it. Lyman refuses, and the argument turns into a brawl. However, when the battered brothers meet eyes, they start laughing. They share the beers they brought, throwing the cans into the river.

After some time, Lyman suggests they go back and find some girls. Henry’s mood sours again and he calls the girls “crazy.” Lyman, poking fun, says Henry is “crazy” too. Henry jumps up, whooping and dancing in response, causing Lyman to laugh until it hurts. Henry jumps in the river to cool off, and the current starts to pull him away from the bank. He stands up, calmly says his “boots are filling” (189), and then he’s gone. Lyman searches the river until the sun goes down. When he finally comes out, he turns the convertible on, puts it in first gear, and lets it drive into the river. It runs until the headlights go out and all that remains is the sound of rushing water.

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