In Erdrich’s story “The Red Convertible,” Henry Lamartine makes three memorable journeys off the Chippewa reservation. The first journey, which he takes with his brother Lyman, is a pleasure-filled jaunt around the western part of the United States. The next time he leaves the reservation he is sent to fight in the Vietnam War. His third journey is his last; he travels with Lyman to the Red River to commit suicide. These trips all differ greatly, but the presence of the Lamartine brothers’ red convertible ties these journeys together.
In the opening paragraphs of the narrative, Lyman sets up the sense of freedom and luxury that the red convertible brings to Henry and him by suggesting the impoverishment and disaster that befall the Chippewa on the reservation. Ironically, the only reason Henry is able to afford his share of the convertible is through misfortune; he had two checks in his pocket when they saw the car—his weekly paycheck and “a week’s extra pay for being laid off.” Lyman is the sole person on the reservation with the talent for making money. In this aspect, he differs from the rest of the Chippewa, a truth that “everyone recognized.” Allowed special privileges, such as keeping a percentage of the money he raises for the church selling spiritual bouquets, Lyman soon discovers that the “more money I made the easier the money came.” In Lyman’s successes, the failures of the rest of the people on the reservation are revealed by implicit comparison. Yet, despite his talent, even Lyman experiences his share of difficulties. After only one year of owning the Joliet Cafe, “the worst tornado ever seen around here” blew in, and the “whole operation was smashed to bits. A total loss. The fryalator was up in a tree, the grill torn in half like it was paper.” This incident, which touches Lyman, the one person with good luck, further emphasizes the nature of the depravation on the reservation and why the brothers—particularly the unlucky Henry— feel the need to escape by means of the red convertible.
It is no coincidence that Henry and Lyman come across the car in Winnepeg, on a trip off the reservation. They had been walking around, “seeing the sights.” The narration implies that such a marvelous object—a car that “reposed”—was not available on the reservation. The brothers purchase the car, as they say, “before we had thought it over at all,” and it turns out to be their ticket to a new world. “We took off driving all one summer,” writes Lyman, visiting many places around the West and Northwest. In Montana, the brothers find a spot that was “So comfortable.” There, Lyman “feel[s] good,” and Henry seems at peace with the world,”asleep with his arms thrown wide.” Lyman is not sure of their exact location, for “it could have been anywhere.” With the red convertible in their grasp, joy is everywhere because the car provides the key to life off the reservation and away from the constraints and troubles the reservation bears.
The red convertible brings the brothers to travel as far away as Alaska, a place they “never wanted to leave.” Lyman describes their time in Alaska as idyllic. It is a nether world, neither light nor dark; the “sun doesn’t truly set there in summer, and the night is more a soft dusk.” Alaska makes Lyman feel as if he is in a pleasant dream world, where responsibilities or difficult tasks or choices fall away. “You might doze off, sometimes, but before you know it you’re up again, like an animal in nature,” he says. “You never feel like you have to sleep hard or put away the world.” Alaska also brims with the promise of possibility, for “things would grow there. One day just dirt or moss, the next day flowers and long grass.”
As the season changes, the sky begins to get darker and the “cold was even getting just a little mean.” The brothers need to escape the upcoming winter and its metaphoric chill, so they head back south, looking for “greener pastures.” However, although they speed through the northwestern states, they are hopelessly “racing the weather,” and the winter eventually catches up with them back on the reservation. This is a place too beaten down to support the red convertible, so it is not surprising that the brothers “got home just in time .. . for the army to remember that Henry had signed up to join it.” Henry thus sets off on his second journey, but it bears no resemblance to the one from which he has just returned. This journey is not a pleasurable one; Henry must go without the company of his brother and the potent force of the red convertible.
The Henry that departs the reservation, the Henry of the summer trip in the red convertible, is full of life, vitality, and strength. “I don’t wonder that the army was so glad to get my brother that they turned him into a Marine,” Lyman muses.”He was built like a brick outhouse anyway.” Henry’s nose, “big and sharp as a hatchet, like the nose of on Red Tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, whose profile is on signs all along the North Dakota highways,” is a further representation of Henry’s power and vigor. Despite possessing the physical qualities of a fighter, Henry is captured by the enemy. Although the family only receives two letters from Henry while he is gone, Lyman understands that the red convertible offers the best chance of helping Henry through this hard time. As Lyman states, “[I] wrote him back several times, even though I didn’t know if those letters would get through. I kept him informed all about the car.”
After three years, Henry returns home, but according to Lyman, he “was very different, and … the change was no good.” This new, reduced Henry has been sculpted by the Marines and the experience in Vietnam. He spends his time watching TV, sitting in a chair and “gripping the armrests with all his might.” Even the red convertible brings no life to Henry. In desperation, Lyman destroys the car, rendering it “worse than any typical Indian car that had been all its life on reservation roads,” in hopes that Henry will restore it. This ploy eventually works, and Henry spends all of his time, day and night, fixing the car. That spring, when Henry suggests they go for a ride in the convertible, Lyman believes that Henry “could be coming around.” Lyman feels all the hope that the melting snow and the “very bright” sun bring. Their younger sister takes a picture of Lyman and Henry, who significantly is still wearing his soldier’s field jacket and the other “worn-in clothes he’d come back in.” Lyman takes it as a good sign that Henry smiled when Bonita asked him to, but it is only much later that Lyman sees in the photograph what he overlooked at the time: that”the shadows on his face are deep as holes…. [and] curved like little hooks around the ends of his smile.”
Lyman believes that the ride to the Red River in the convertible represents a new beginning. “The trip over there was beautiful,” he recalls. “When everything starts changing, drying up, clearing off, you feel like your whole life is starting.” They park at the river, a place where they can revel in “all this green growing earth.” While at first Lyman thinks that Henry was “clear, more peaceful,” he is wrong. Lyman comes to understand Henry’s pain, for “I felt something squeezing inside me and tightening and trying to let it go all at the same time…. I knew I was feeling what Henry was going through at that moment.” Despite the comforting presence of the car and his brother and the memory of the summer of the red convertible, Henry is haunted.
Henry has lost the will to live, which Lyman comes to understand when his brother says that “he wanted to give the car to me for good now.” To lose the red convertible is to lose the ability to experience joy and freedom, but Lyman tries to reject this truth by refusing to take the car. He even tries to beat feelings of hope back into his brother, and the two men fight “for all we’re worth.” Lyman allows himself to be fooled by this altercation, which ends in mutual laughter. He and Henry carry on as they used to, pulling the beers out of the cooler in the cars trunk and throwing the empty cans into the river. “I think it’s the old Henry again,” says Lyman. “He throws off his jacket and starts springing his legs up from the knees.” Trying to bring back the spirit of their previous summer, Lyman likens Henry to the natural world. “He’s down doing something between a grass dance and a bunny hop.”
When Henry commits suicide, he does so through the forces of nature—by jumping into the river. However, Henry’s trajectory replicates that of the beer cans the brothers had thrown into the river to “see how far, how fast the current takes them before they fill up and sink.” As Henry is carried halfway across the river and his boots fill with water, he becomes yet another pieces of useless debris. Lyman wants to prevent this from happening. He jumps into the river, in vain hopes of saving Henry. Unable to do so, he nevertheless refuses to give up and get out of the river until “the sun is down,” signifying that the day has closed in on Henry. Lyman is embittered by the false hope the red convertible held out for him and his brother. He believed it represented good times, but the past no longer lives in the present, and the convertible cannot bring good times ever again. In his despair, Henry pushes the car into the river that took Henry. The car undergoes a sort of death, too. Lyman watches as it sinks in the water. “The headlights reach in as they go down, searching, still lighted even after the water swirls over the back end. I wait. The wires short out. It is all finally dark.” Yet, even then, the red convertible manifests a greater will for life than its owner, and, at the same time, marks its presence on Lyman forever; for he is left with “only the water, [and] the sound of it going and running and going and running and running.”
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Louise Erdrich, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “The Red Convertible,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002