There are a lot of books I have read in my life that served as touchstones from A Wrinkle in Time to Something Wicked This Way Comes, but The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien was as a guidepost when I desperately needed one. After graduate school I spent a couple of frustrated years trying to figure out how to write about Alaska flying in a nonacademic way. I knew it was a subject people were interested in and coming up with ideas was not a problem but the narrative structure was stubbornly elusive. I wanted to write about Alaska aviation as I experienced it while working for a bush commuter in Fairbanks, but I didn’t want to make the book about me. I wasn’t looking for a personal story or a conventional history or a “men vs the elements” adventure title. I found myself grasping for a literary hybrid but couldn’t find the way into making it real. Then I read The Things They Carried and everything – everything – became clear.
The funny thing is this wasn’t my first O’Brien book. Both If I Die in a Combat Zone and In the Lake of the Woods were books that impressed me a great deal. I didn’t see the correlation between bush aviation and war until I read Things however. The direct connection was found in the stories. As O’Brien wrote, “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” The same can be said of flying stories; every pilot lies and yet every flying story is true.
Once I understood this I accepted that the stories were what mattered the most to us at the “Company”. As I wrote my book, the stories were what I focused on which meant writing a lot about things like the cold and crashes and cargoes as varied as wedding cakes and sled dogs. But more importantly,The Map Of My Dead Pilots became a book about the stories we tell each other when the work we do is surreal and a little bit crazy. The Things They Carried showed me how to craft a narrative around that reality and also how to build a structure in a way that encompassed a large cast of characters while making each of them individually memorable and as a group unforgettable. The relief of knowing that such a structure could exist was immeasurable and gave me the confidence to write the book I had been carrying around for so long.
O’Brien also wrote “But this too is true: stories can save us.” More than anything, The Map of My Dead Pilots is about how stories helped me and the people I worked with to remember a place and time that impacted us in powerful and permanent ways. In terms of who I am at this moment and the future I am striving to create, there could be no more significant a book in my life. The Things They Carried showed me what truth really is, and how I could in turn share mine with the world.
Colleen Mondor’s book, The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska was published in November 2011.