“The Red Convertible” is narrated by Lyman Lamartine, a member of the Chippewa tribe who lives on a reservation with his family. He tells a story from his recent past about his older halfbrother, Henry. As Lyman tells the story, the year is 1974.
Lyman was able to buy a red convertible Oldsmobile with his brother because he had always been good with money. He started working as a dishwasher at the Joliet Cafe when he was fifteen, and at the age, of sixteen, he became the cafe’s owner. Soon after, it was destroyed by a tornado.
On impulse, Lyman and Henry bought the car on a visit to Winnipeg. That summer, they took the car on a trip without an itinerary or any plans. They traveled around Montana for half the summer before picking up a Native American girl named Susy, who was hitchhiking home to Alaska. They agreed to take her, and her family welcomed them for the rest of the summer. The brothers shared good times before returning home. They went back home so that Henry, who had enlisted in the Marines, could begin his military service. After training and briefly visiting his family at Christmas, Henry was sent to Vietnam. It was early 1970. Before he left, he gave Lyman his key to the car, but Lyman just laughed and kept it for when Henry came back home.
Three years later, Henry returned as a different person. No longer easygoing, funny, and talkative, he was quiet, anxious, and moody. He often watched television, though doing so made him extremely tense.
Lyman and his mother discussed how they could find help for Henry. There were no Chippewa doctors on the reservation, and they feared that a hospital would either reject Henry or attempt to solve his problems by giving him too many drugs. Lyman decided to try to revive Henry by damaging the car so that Henry could fix it. A month later, Henry saw the car and began working on it.
Henry worked diligently on the car for the rest of the winter. In the spring, he asked Lyman to go on a drive with him. Lyman was thrilled because his brother seemed to be getting back to his old self. Before they left, their eleven-year-old sister, Bonita, took their picture. Lyman tells the reader that he never looks at the picture anymore. He used to have it on his wall, but he can no longer stand to look at it.
Returning to his memories of the day he and Henry took the car for a drive, Lyman recalls that they headed to the Red River because Henry wanted to see the high water. When they arrived, it was evening, so they started a fire. They started talking and drinking, and Henry told Lyman that he knew how the car got damaged. He said that he fixed it so that he could give it back to Lyman. They argued about who should have it—Henry insisting that Lyman take it, and Lyman insisting that they share it—until they started physically fighting. Then they started laughing, and Lyman thought that Henry was his old self again. Henry said he needed to cool down, and he jumped in the river. When Lyman saw him, he could see that the current was carrying him. Henry said, “My boots are filling” and was carried away by the river.
Although Lyman tried to save Henry by jumping in the river after him, he could not find him. Lyman returned to the car, started it, put it in first gear, and let it go into the river. He watched it until it went all the way in and the headlights went out.
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.