The infamous My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War plays a significant role in Tim O’Brien’s novel, In the Lake of the Woods. Unlike the previous literary works which brought him fame, critical attention and, in 1979 the National Book Award, In the Lake of the Woods is not situated within the war genre, but the mystery genre. The novel details what happens to John Wade following his losing run for a seat in the Senate and the subsequent disappearance of his wife, Kathy. Wade’s political loss is partly attributed to his part in the brutal murder of civilians that took place at My Lai.
This mingling of fictional worlds with real life history serves to make In the Lake of the Woods far more than just a mystery in the same way that Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried are about more than war. In the Lake of the Woods verges into the world of postmodern fiction as much as it does historical fiction, despite being awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 1995. As the narrative progresses, the narrator’s assertion that “evidence is not truth. It is only evident” serves to become the novel’s them. Several potential solutions to the mystery that qualifies O’Brien’s novel for that genre are present, and each is seemingly as applicable and rational as the next.
Ultimately, the very ability to arrive at a single definitive answer to any mystery crumbles in the face of every reality at all times being a projection of multiple viewpoints taking off from a complex amalgamation of moral perspectives all intent on arriving at the same destination: truth. The truth at the heart of In the Lake of the Woods inexorably draws the attentive reader to the inescapable awareness that the world O’Brien creates outside of Vietnam is every bit as murky and ambiguous as that controversial war itself.
One year after winning the Cooper Prize, In the Lake of the Woods was adapted into made-for-TV movie starring Peter Strauss, Kathleen Quinlan, and Peter Boyle.