In the Lake of the Woods | Critical Essay by Albert E. Wilhelm

Tim O'Brien
This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of In the Lake of the Woods.
This section contains 1,669 words
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Critical Essay by Albert E. Wilhelm

SOURCE: "Ballad Allusions in Tim O'Brien's 'Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 218-22.

In the essay below, Wilhelm observes a difference in use of allusions to the ballads "Billy Boy" and "Lord Randal" in O'Brien's short story and the version that appeared in Going after Cacciato as "Night Watch."

Before being joined and published as a novel, several chapters of Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato appeared as individual short stories. Frequently these stories were much shorter than the corresponding chapters in O'Brien's novel, and they usually bore different titles. For example, in the October 1977 issue of Esquire, O'Brien published a story entitled "Fisherman." Subsequently he expanded this piece to form two separate chapters in Going After Cacciato, and he renamed these chapters "Lake Country" and "World's Greatest Lake Country."

Critical commentary on Going After Cacciato is, of course, both extensive and illuminating, but O'Brien's early short stories have been largely ignored. Even though many of these stories were absorbed into a longer work, the individual stories are significantly different both in text and in context from corresponding chapters of the completed novel. Indeed, several of the stories won prizes as pieces of short fiction and thus deserve attention as examples of that genre. In order to illustrate the distinctive features of O'Brien's short stories, this note will focus on a story entitled "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?," which was first published in the May 1975 issue of Redbook. After much revision it reappeared with the title "Night March" as Chapter 31 of Going After Cacciato. In its original version, O'Brien's story contains persistent allusions to folk ballads, and these allusions provide significant clues for interpretation.

With his change of title to "Night March," O'Brien shifts his focus from the plight of an individual to the joint activities of a military unit. In its original form, however, the piece is a very moving initiation story, and its allusive title works nicely to reinforce important themes. This title refers, of course, to the old folk song "Billie Boy," and lines from the song appear at several points in the account of Paul Berlin's "first day at the war." Even though O'Brien's title alludes to the second line of the folk song, his phrasing is distinctive. Bertrand Bronson has identified twenty-nine variants of "Billie Boy," but none of them exactly matches the wording of O'Brien's question. Numerous versions of the song ask, "Where have you been, Billie Boy," and five versions ask, "Where are you going?" O'Brien's use of the verb go with a shift in tense may appear insignificant, but it establishes an elegiac tone not present in the lighthearted song. On his first day in battle, Paul has witnessed the bizarre death of Billy Boy Watkins. As he reflects on the death of his fellow soldier, he also mourns the loss of his own innocence—especially that sense of himself "when he was a boy … camping with his father in the midnight summer along the Des Moines River." In O'Brien's story, then, the question from a comic folk song becomes a plaintive reiteration of the ubi sunt motif.

The text of the Redbook story (but not that of the novel) quotes part of the folk song's description of Billie Boy's girl. Each stanza of the song typically ends with a line affirming that she is "a young thing and cannot leave her mother." This "young" girl's actual age remains indefinite, but in various versions of the song she is said to be "twice forty-five eleven" and "a hundred like and nine." Even though these ages may be difficult to calculate precisely, it seems clear that the girl is far from young. Indeed, the folk song's outrageous math may imply a triple-digit age. If, at this stage, she is still too young to leave her mother, what can be said of the confused adolescents who populate O'Brien's story? The reader is invited to transfer the song's comic assertion about a young girl and see its more painful relevance in describing the dead Billy Boy, Paul Berlin, and all the youthful soldiers who are suffering the shock of separation from mothers and motherland.

O'Brien's Redbook story depicts Paul's painful initiation, but it also shows his attempt to deal with that pain by means of an imaginative transformation. During the march Paul "pretended he was not a soldier" and "that Billy Boy Watkins had not died of a heart attack that afternoon." By the end of the march he has transformed tragedy into comedy by creating a parody of a death notification:

He imagined Billy's father opening the telegram: SORRY TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON BILLY BOY WAS YESTERDAY SCARED TO DEATH IN ACTION IN THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM, VALIANTLY SUCCUMBING TO A HEART ATTACK SUFFERED WHILE UNDER ENORMOUS STRESS, AND IT IS WITH GREATEST SYMPATHY THAT … He giggled again. He rolled onto his belly and pressed his face into his arms. His body was shaking with giggles.

In the last paragraph of the story, Paul copes with his immediate pain by projecting into the future. The horror of Billy's death is reduced to "a funny war story that he would tell to his father." The bizarre episode will become the basis for "a good joke."

If allusions to the song "Billie Boy" are useful in emphasizing the theme of initiation, they are equally apt in reinforcing this idea of imaginative transformation. According to Bronson, "Billie Boy" is a "spirited parody" of the tragic ballad "Lord Randal." Just as Paul Berlin takes the horrors of war and recreates them in a ludicrous and hence more tolerable form, this song takes a tragic episode of courtship and transforms it into a comic series of questions and answers.

To understand how "Billie Boy" functions as a parody, one must examine the grim materials on which it is apparently based. Like O'Brien's story and the song "Billie Boy," the ballad "Lord Randal" begins with a question addressed to a young man: "O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son?" Later stanzas of the song focus on the source of the poison Lord Randal has consumed and the various legacies he will leave his survivors. These narrative elements, although they have been radically altered in "Billie Boy," provide an additional subtext for O'Brien's story about the war in Vietnam. "Lord Randal" emphasizes betrayal by one who should be worthy of trust, and O'Brien's soldiers in Vietnam feel equally betrayed and abandoned. The murderer of Lord Randal is identified differently in various versions of the ballad. Typically the villain is Randal's sweetheart, but some of the 103 variants collected by Bronson place the blame on his wife, sister, grandmother, and even his father. In all cases, however, the betrayal is even more devastating because it is executed by one who is presumably so close and loving. Still another detail that suggests misplaced confidence is the specific source of the poison consumed by Lord Randal. Here again the many versions of the ballad differ greatly. Most of the variants printed by Bronson identify the poison source as eels or fishes, but some versions specify "dill and dill broth," "sweet milk and parsnips," "eggs fried in butter," and bread with mutton. The common element in all these cases is a deceptive wholesomeness. What appears healthful and nutritious is in fact deadly. Such are the lessons that Paul must rapidly learn in "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?" A path that looks safe may be planted with "land mines and booby traps." His fellow soldier Watkins may seem "tough as nails," but he suffers a fatal attack of fear. The mission in Vietnam may at first appear grand and glorious, but soon Paul will see only hollowness and horror.

Among the legacies that Lord Randal will leave his survivors, the most notable are those intended for the one who betrayed him. In various versions of the ballad, these bequests include "the rope and the gallows," the "keys of hell's gates," "hell fire and brimstone," and a "barrel of powder, to blow her up high." If the prevailing tone of "Lord Randal" is bitter and vengeful, that of "Billie Boy" is outrageously comic. Instead of brutal legacies left to a false lover, we find in the later song a list of singular achievements attributed to one who will apparently remain endlessly faithful. For example, in the version of the song that Bronson identifies as number 26, Billie's sweetheart "can bake a cherry pie / As quick as a cat can wink her eye." She can "sweep up a house / As quick as a cat can catch a mouse" and even "make up a bed / Seven feet above her head." In "Billie Boy" then, hyperbolic comedy displaces the cynicism and bitterness of "Lord Randal." In a similar fashion Paul Berlin's comic telegram uses hyperbole to keep the horrors of war at bay.

Other differences between "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?" and "Night March" could be noted, but this difference in use of ballad allusions is central. While some ballad allusions are retained in the novel, such references are more persistent and more significant in the Redbook story. Throughout O'Brien's story the ballad subtexts provide ironic resonance. With its references to cherry pies and protective mothers, the song "Billie Boy" conjures up an image of home and family that contrasts sharply with the dangerous world into which Paul is initiated. Descriptions of Billie Boy's sweetheart and her remarkable domestic skills suggest fidelity and invincibility—qualities prominent in the rhetoric but seldom in the reality of Vietnam. The ballad "Lord Randal" offers a subtext that is more deeply submerged but equally important in O'Brien's story. Most versions of the song focus on the last words of a young man who courted unwisely and suffered death at the hands of his treacherous lover. Such materials echo the American dilemma in Southeast Asia where idealistic commitments turned bad and left behind a bitter legacy.

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This section contains 1,669 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jon Elsen