This chapter takes place in 1974 and is narrated in the first person by Lyman Lamartine, Lulu's son with Nector. As the story opens, Lyman declares that he and his brother Henry Junior once owned a red convertible together, but that now Henry owns it in full after buying out Lyman's share during an incident when Henry's boots filled with water.
Lyman and Henry Junior bought a red convertible together when they were teenagers. Lyman has always been good at making money, and bought a portion of the car with the insurance money he made after the restaurant he owned at age sixteen, the Joliet, was destroyed in a hurricane. He and Henry saw the car in Winnipeg and bought it together that summer. They drove all around the country.
In Montana, they met a girl named Susy who asked them to drive her home to Alaska. They drove her home and lived there for the warmer months. Lyman recalls loving the Alaskan summer: endless days full of energy. When the cold weather came they drove back home, and right after they arrived Henry was called up for duty in the army. He became a Marine and went to Vietnam in 1970. He sent his family only two letters before he was captured by the enemy.
The Henry who returns home from the war is, as Lyman recalls, much changed. "Henry was jumpy and mean," he says. Before, the brothers were best friends and loved to joke around together. Now, Lyman and his mother Lulu consider sending Henry to an institution: he is set off by everything around him, including the family's new color television, which causes him to violently bite his lip.
Lyman devises a solution that will keep Henry out of hospitals. He purposefully breaks part of their convertible so Henry will have a project to address. Henry becomes talkative again as he sets out to repair the car. He works all day and night, but this endeavor helps him to heal - though he is still very damaged.
One day Henry and Lyman's younger sister Bonita, who is eleven years-old, takes a picture of Henry and Lyman by the car. Lyman's narrative flashes forward from that day. He says he can't look at the picture any more. It is clear that something happened. Back in the story's narrative, Lyman and Henry drive east toward Pembina and Red River to see the high water.
Henry has put the car back together quite well, and the brothers have a pleasant drive together. They sit by the river and make a fire and watch the water flow. Henry admits that he knows that Lyman destroyed the car on purpose, and tries to get Lyman to take the car and own it in full. Lyman refuses, and they have a short fight that ends in laughter.
Saying that he wants to cool off, Henry jumps in the water, but the current is strong and the river is getting dark as night falls. The last thing Lyman hears Henry say is "My boots are filling," and then he is swept away by the current. Lyman swims into the river to try to find him, but he can't. Once he gets back to shore he sends the car driving into the river and watches it sink.
This chapter starts off as the happy tale of two brothers and their misadventures, only to become a dark story about the pain of PTSD and Henry's suicide. Few other chapters in this novel have started so strongly with one tone and ended with such a radically different one.
The first paragraph of the story foreshadows its dark ending, though at first glance Lyman's narration seems completely innocuous. "We owned [the car] together until his boots filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share. Now Henry owns the whole car, and his younger brother Lyman (that's myself), Lyman walks everywhere he goes." While the "boots filled with water" line is mysterious, it could point to a number of scenarios that do not include death.
The progression of the chapter from before to after Henry's experiences in the army serves to further illuminate his character, building off the previous chapter, "The Bridge." The reader learns that Henry was once a happy, joking brother who was close to family. This makes his transformation into a reclusive, jumpy, mean veteran all the more shocking. Erdrich's characterization shows an ordinary man's depressing descent into madness.
The theme of water also appears in this chapter. Water signifies death from the moment it is introduced, though the reader does not know this yet. It may be unclear whether Henry committed suicide or accidentally drowned in the river, but it is clear that water took his life.
The picture that Bonita takes of Lyman and Henry serves as a further foreshadowing of Henry's death; by this point in the story, it has become clear that Henry is very unstable and that Lyman's reluctance to look at the picture could have dark implications. In both this chapter and the previous one, Erdrich manipulates time to present various facets of her characters in different situations. As each new time period is presented, the depth of Henry's suffering becomes more apparent. The subtle foreshadowing of his death that is woven throughout "The Red Convertible" both gives enough hints and enough restraint for his death to come as an understandable, though no less devastating, surprise.