Bonita is Lyman and Henry’s only sister. She was eleven when Henry died. On the last day of Henry’s life, Bonita took a picture of Lyman and Henry just before they took the car for a drive.
Henry Lamartine, Jr.
Henry was Lyman’s older half-brother. He is described as having had a large, muscular build and a strong profile. As the story opens, the year is 1974 and Henry is dead, but Lyman tells the reader about some of his experiences with Henry before his death. Henry was somewhat impulsive, taking a trip without an itinerary or plans of any kind and agreeing to take a hitchhiker all the way to Alaska. He was a secure man with a sense of humor and an easygoing disposition.
Henry enlisted to serve in the Vietnam War and became a Marine. When he returned three years later, he had changed. He was jumpy, silent, moody, and detached, and he rarely laughed or smiled. When Lyman tried to restore Henry’s spirit by damaging the car so that Henry could fix it, Henry knew what had happened to the car. Still, he fixed it so that he could give the car back to Lyman. On the day of his death, Henry was smiling and joking. He was also talkative, leading Lyman to think that Henry was himself again. That night, however, Henry walked into the river and was carried away. Whether this was a suicide is left open to interpretation.
Lyman is the story’s narrator. He is a young Chippewa man who lives on a reservation with his family. He tells the story of when he, along with his older half-brother Henry, owned a red Oldsmobile convertible. Lyman’s relationship with his brother was typical; Lyman admired his older brother and had the most fun when they were together. Lyman was able to afford partial ownership in the car because he had always been good with money. When he was fifteen, he started working at the Joliet Cafe as a dishwasher, and he became first part owner and then sole owner when he was only sixteen. Although the cafe was soon destroyed in a tornado, he enjoyed the short-lived success and was able to buy the car with his brother.
When Henry went to fight in the Vietnam War, Lyman remained optimistic. He maintained the car so that when Henry returned, they could enjoy it just as they had before Henry left. Lyman was naive to think that his brother would be the same when he returned, but when he saw that Henry had changed, he was sensitive to his brother’s feelings. Lyman’s unselfish nature is apparent in the way he treated his older brother and in his attempts to help him find joy again. Lyman felt very close to his brother, even when his brother was emotionally unavailable.
Lyman and Henry’s Mother
Little is said about Lyman and Henry’s mother, who does her best to cope with Henry’s sullen disposition when he returns from the war. At the time of the story, she is not married although she has been married many times in the past.
Susy is a hitchhiker whom Lyman and Henry pick up during a summer-long road trip that Lyman recalls in the story. She is a Native American girl of small stature. When she tells Lyman and Henry that she wants to go home to Alaska, they take her. Her family is welcoming, and the brothers stay with them until the weather turns cold.
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.