Northern Lights

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Overview

A CLASSIC FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

Originally published in 1975, Tim O'Brien's debut novel demonstrates the emotional complexity and enthralling narrative tension that later earned him the National Book Award. At its core is the relationship between two brothers: one who went to Vietnam and one who stayed at home. As the two brothers struggle against an unexpected blizzard in Minnesota's remote ...

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Overview

A CLASSIC FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

Originally published in 1975, Tim O'Brien's debut novel demonstrates the emotional complexity and enthralling narrative tension that later earned him the National Book Award. At its core is the relationship between two brothers: one who went to Vietnam and one who stayed at home. As the two brothers struggle against an unexpected blizzard in Minnesota's remote north woods, what they discover about themselves and each other will change both of them for ever.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The suspense is spellbinding.. . . What puts this tale above countless others is the care and eloquence of Tim O'Brien."
—Chicago Sun-Times

"Northern Lights is a thrilling story . . . which can be read and enjoyed simply as an adventure story, but digs deeper than that."
—Irish Times

"Gripping and convincing. . . . Northern Lights is an impressive first novel."
—Times Literary Supplement

"O'Brien writes superbly, he also has a wonderful ear for ordinary American idiom and the ability to fine-tune its innate rhythms, cadences, and imagery into an authentic popular poetry."
—The Guardian

"Haunting. . . . Survival, courage, and heroes are examined beautifully and simply."
Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767904414
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 675,268
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Tim O'Brien

TIM O’BRIEN received the 1979 National Book Award in fiction for Going After Cacciato. His other works include the Pulitzer finalist and a New York Times Book of the Century, The Things They Carried; the acclaimed novels Tomcat in Love and Northern Lights; and the national bestselling memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone. His novel In the Lake of the Woods received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians and was named the best novel of 1994 by Time. In 2010 he received the Katherine Anne Porter Award for a distinguished lifetime body of work and in 2012 he received the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. He was awarded the Pritzker Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing in 2013.

Biography

Tim O'Brien has said it was cowardice -- not courage -- that led him, in the late 1960s, to defer his admittance into Harvard in favor of combat in Vietnam. The alternatives of a flight to Canada or a moral stand in a U.S. jail were too unpopular.

He has since explored the definitions of courage -- moral, physical, political -- in his fiction, a body of work that has, at least until recently, dealt almost exclusively with America's most unpopular war and its domestic consequences. His first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home looked at the war through a collection of war vignettes that he had written for newspapers in his home state of Minnesota, and his second book was a novel, Northern Lights, that he later decried as overly long and Hemingwayesque -- almost a parody of the writer's war stories.

His third book, Going After Cacciato in 1978 does not suffer such criticism from the author. Or, for that matter, from the critics. Grace Paley praised the novel -- which follows the journey of a soldier who goes AWOL from Vietnam and walks to Paris -- as "imaginative" in The New York Times. And the book became a breakthrough critical success for O'Brien, the start of a series that would give him the unofficial title as our pre-eminent Vietnam storyteller. Cacciato even won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction in 1979, beating out John Irving's The World According to Garp.

"Going After Cacciato taunts us with many faces and angles of vision," Catherine Calloway wrote in the 1990 book America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. "The protagonist Paul Berlin cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined in the war just as the reader cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined in the novel... Paul Berlin is forced, as is the reader, into an attempt to distinguish between illusion and reality and in doing so creates a continuous critical dialogue between himself and the world around him."

Born in Austin, Minn., to an insurance salesman and schoolteacher, O'Brien grew up as a voracious reader but didn't find the courage to write until his experiences in Vietnam. After the war, he studied at the Harvard University's School of Government and was a staff reporter at The Washington Post in the early 1970s. He writes from early in the morning until the evening and has a reputation for discarding long passages of writing because he finds the effort substandard. He also can do extensive revisions of his books between editions.

His follow-up to Cacciato, 1981's The Nuclear Age, had a draft dodger find his fortune in the uranium business though he is consistently plagued by dreams of nuclear annihilation. Critics labeled it a misstep. But his subsequent effort, The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories about Vietnam, reaffirmed his reputation as a Vietnam observer. "By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places The Things They Carried high up on the list of best fiction about any war," The New York Times said in March of 1990. And his next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, another Vietnam effort, won the top spot on Time's roster of fiction for 1994.

In Lake, Minnesota politician John Wade, whose career has suffered a major setback with the revelation of his participation in the notorious My Lai massacre from the Vietnam War, retreats to his cabin with wife Kathy, who later disappears. The Times Literary Supplement said it was perhaps his "bleakest novel yet" and that "the most chilling passages are not those which deal with guns and gore in Vietnam but those set in Minnesota many years later, revealing a people at ease but never at peace." Pico Lyer, writing in Time, said "O'Brien manages what he does best, which is to find the boy scout in the foot soldier, and the foot soldier in every reader."

O'Brien's more recent efforts -- his sexual comedy of manners Tomcat in Love and July, July, which centers on a high-school reunion of the Vietnam set -- have not received the high praise of his earlier efforts. But O'Brien has said he is not writing for the critics, noting that Moby Dick was loathed upon its release.

"I don't get too excited about bad reviews or good ones," he told Contemporary Literature in 1991. "I feel happy if they're good, feel sad if they're bad, but the feelings disappear pretty quickly, because ultimately I'm not writing for my contemporaries but for the ages, like every good writer should be. You're writing for history, in the hope that your book -- out of the thousands that are published each year -- might be the last to be read a hundred years from now and enjoyed."

Good To Know

O'Brien was stationed in the setting of the infamous My Lai massacre a year after it occurred.

His father wrote personal accounts of World War II for The New York Times.

O'Brien's book The Things They Carried was a contender as Washington D.C. looked in 2002 to find a book for its campaign to have the entire city simultaneously reading the same book.

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    1. Also Known As:
      William Timothy O’Brien
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 1, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Austin, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B.A., Macalester College, 1968; Graduate study at Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

Heat Storm

Wide awake and restless, Paul Milton Perry clawed away the sheets and swung out of bed, blood weak, his fists clenching and closing like a pulse. He hadn't slept. He sat very still. He listened to the July heat, mosquitoes at the screen windows, inchworms eating in the back pines, the old house, a close-seeming flock of loons. What he did not hear, he imagined. Timber wolves and Indians, the chime of the old man's spoon in the spit bucket, the glacial floes, Harvey hammering at the half-finished bomb shelter, ice cracking in great sheets, the deep pond and Grace's whispering, and a sobbing sound. He sat still. He was naked and sweating and anaemic and flabby. Thinking first about Harvey, then about the heat, then the mosquitoes, he'd been sailing in a gaunt nightlong rush of images and half-dreams, turning, wallowing, listening like a stranger to the sounds of his father's house.

He sat still.

Harvey was coming home.

There was that, and there was Grace, and there were the mosquitoes crazy for blood against the screen windows.

"Lord, now," he moaned, and pushed out of bed, found his glasses, and groped towards the kitchen.

He returned with a black can of insecticide. Then he listened again. The bedroom was sullen and hot, and he was thinking murder. Carefully, he tied the lace curtains to one side. He ignored Grace's first whisper. He pushed the nozzle flush against the screen window. Then, grinning and naked, he pressed the nozzle and began to spray, feeling better, and he flushed the night with poison from his black can.

He grinned and pressed the nozzle. His fingers turned wet and cool from condensed poison, and he listened: mosquitoes and june bugs, dawn crickets, dawn birds, dragonflies and larvae and caterpillars, morning moths and sleeping flies, bear and moose, walleyes and carp and northerns and bullheads and tiny salamanders. It was dark everywhere. The black can hissed in the dark, ejaculating sweet chemicals that filled the great forest and his father's house. He sprayed until the can was empty and light, then he listened, and the odor of poison buoyed him.

He sat on the bed. Harvey was coming home, and he was dizzy.

"Bad night," Grace whispered.

"Lord."

"Poor boy."

"Poor mosquitoes."

" Shhhhh," she always whispered. "Shhhh, just lie back now. Come here, lie back. You're just excited. Phew, what a stink! Come here now. Lie back."

"Killed a billion of them."

"Shhhh, lie back."

"No use. What a night. Lord, what a crummy awful night."

"Relax now. I heard you all night long."

"Mosquitoes, the blasted heat, everything." He sat on the bed. He was still holding the defused can of insecticide. Poison drifted through the dark room.

"Poor boy. Come here now. Here, lie back. Lie back." Her hand moved to his neck. "Here now," she whispered. "Lie back and I'll rub you. Poor boy, I heard you tossing all night long. Just lie back and I'll give you a nice rub and you can sleep and sleep."

"I'm going for a walk."

"None of that. You just lie still and I'll rub you." Her hand brushed up his spine and rested on his shoulder. Vaguely through the cloud of poison he heard the hum of returning insects, thousands and millions of them deep in the woods, and he began scratching himself. He was flabby and restless. "I'm going for a walk."

"Poor, poor Paul," she said. She removed his glasses. "There now. Just lie back and I'll give you a rub. There. There, how's that now? Better now? Poor boy, you're just excited about Harvey coming home, that's all, that's all. Just lie back and I'll rub you and you can sleep."

"What time is it?"

"Shhhhh. Plenty of time. Still dark, see? You just lie still now."

"Lord," he moaned.

"A nice rub?"

"I'm going for a walk."

"Shhhhh, none of that. Let me rub you."

"Damn mosquitoes."

"I know."

"Scratch. There." He lay back. He grinned. "Guess I killed myself some lousy mosquitoes, didn't I?"

"I guess you did."

"Massacred the little buggers."

"Hush up. You killed them all. You're a brave mosquito killer and now you can just go to sleep. Roll on to your tummy and I'll scratch you."

He turned and let her scratch. He felt better. The room sweated with the poison. He lay still and listened to the returning mosquitoes, the dawn insects, listened to Grace murmur in the dark: "There, there. Is that better? Poor boy, I heard you all night long. Just excited, that's all. Aren't you excited? Harvey coming home and everything, I don't blame you. Poor boy. Now, how does that feel? Better now? You just go to sleep."

"What time is it?"

"Sleep time," Grace said. "Plenty of time."

Her fingers went up and down his back. He felt better. "There, there," she was whispering, and Perry grinned and thought about the poison sweeping like mustard gas through the screen windows. He felt better. He pressed his nose into the sheets, lay still while she massaged his shoulders and his neck and his scalp. "There, there," she was whispering, softly now, her hand moving lightly. She whispered like a mother. She smelled of flannel. He felt much better. Gradually, she stopped rubbing and after a time he heard her slow breathing. Her mouth was open and she was asleep. Her teeth were shining.

Then he tried to sleep. But soon he was listening and thinking again, thinking about Harvey.

He tried to imagine what great changes the war might have made in his kid brother. He wondered what they would first say to each other. It was hard to picture.

All night, he had been thinking.

There would be some changes. The wounded eye, for sure. It was hard to imagine Harvey with a wounded eye. Harvey the Bull. The blinded bull. It was hard to picture. In a stiff and static way, he remembered his brother through a handful of stop-motion images, a few images that had been frozen long ago and captured everything important. All night the images spun in his head: Harvey the Bull; Harvey digging the bomb shelter; Harvey off somewhere in the woods with the old man; Harvey playing football; Harvey the rascal; Harvey boarding the bus that would take him to a fort in California and from there to Saigon or Chu Lai or wherever.

It was annoying. The few sharp images were all Paul Perry really had. It was as though he'd lived thirty years for the sake of a half-dozen fast snapshots, everything else either forgotten or superfluous or lost in the shuffle, and all night long the few sharp images flopped before him, gaunt summary of three decades, growing up on the old man's sermons and winter stories, learning to swim as the old man watched without pity, college, marriage, returning to Sawmill Landing, the bomb shelter and the old man's death, a job, winter and summer and millions of pine and Norway spruce and birch, billions of bugs. All collapsed around the few images. But even the images offered no natural sequence. They were random and defiant, clarifying nothing, and Perry spent the long night in myopic wonder, trying to sort them into an order that would progress from start to finish to start.

He lay still. The mosquitoes were back. On the far wall, the first light formed patches against Grace's dressing mirror.

Again he swung out of bed. He dressed quietly and carried his shoes to the kitchen. Outside, the sky was chalk colored. It would be another dry day. Sunday. Standing on the porch, he urinated into Grace's green ferns, then he laced up his shoes, hurried across the lawn, passed the bomb shelter without looking, followed the path by memory to Pliney's Pond.

There he sat on the rocks.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What is the relevance of the Revelation quote that begins the novel? Apocalyptic prophecy is a recurring motif throughout the novel. Do the prophecies of doom ever come true? If so, in what sense?

2. Paul frequently refers to himself, sarcastically, as "priceless." How does Paul measure his own self-worth? Under what circumstances does his opinion of himself rise? When does it fall? How does Paul's value system differ from Harvey's?

3. How would you characterize Paul and Grace's marriage? Is it healthy? What needs do they each satisfy in the other? In what ways do they fail each other?

4. We learn a great deal about Sawmill Landing's history and the struggles of its former inhabitants. How have their histories shaped the lives of the present-day inhabitants? What impact does the land have on the current townspeople's interactions?

5. What is Pehr Peri's legacy to his son and grandsons? What has been passed down through the generations? Which son is more receptive to his family's traditions? In what way?

6. Both Pehr Peri and his son Pehr Lindstrom Peri preached "endurance, silent suffering, fortitude" and "simple heroism." Why do you think their sermons were so popular in the Lake Arrowhead area? What message do their sermons hold for Harvey and Paul?

7. How is the story of Harvey's first rifle emblematic of the misperceptions the brothers have about each another? Why do you think so much goes unspoken between the brothers? Do they ever truly connect with one another?

8. Why does Addie insist on calling Harvey a pirate? Do you think it is an accurate appellation? In what way? What does she mean when she says pirates can't get married?

9. Do you agree with Addie's theory that she, Grace, and Harvey are all "vying" for Paul? Why does Addie flirt so aggressively with Paul? Do you believe it when she says she loves him? Do you think he should leave Grace for Addie?

10. We never learn any details about Harvey's experiences in the Vietnam War. How is the war nonetheless a powerful presence in the novel? How does it help shape events?

11. Why did Paul, as a young boy, refuse to go into the woods with his father? Why did Paul stop attending his father's sermons?

12. How does O'Brien manage to capture the sense that Paul is losing his mind from hunger? What insights into his character are provided by his hallucinatory thoughts?

13. What does O'Brien mean when he writes of Harvey and Paul, "like twin oxen struggling in different directions against the same old yoke, they could not talk"? What is the yoke they are struggling against?

14. How do fathers and sons relate to one another in the Peri/Perry family? Do you think Paul will make a good father? What effect has the absence of mothers had on the last two generations of Perrys?

15. Does the journey into the woods transform the relationship between Harvey and Paul? What has changed between them, and what remains the same? How would you characterize their relationship by the end of the novel?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2011

    Good Read

    Tim O'Brien writes an outsanding novel, and gives an even better insight into how two brothers could be total strangers. While one went to fight in Vietnam, the other stayed home and made a suitable life for himself. He does an amazing job portraying the personalities of the two brothers and how their lives have affected them. One is boisterous and won't stop talking, while the other is a soft-spoken, Reserved person who seems to have no sense of adventure. It takes a badly timed road trip to some ski races, and the idea of the two to ski back home, for them to fully understand each other.

    This book would be best suited for those with a sibling, either older or younger, of the same gender. Whether it be two brothers or two sisters, the message is the same, that no matter how well you might know someone, experiences in one's life changes that person into someone new. O'Brien also reminds us that no matter how much a brother or sister changes, there are still that same sibling who will wrestle with you one mnute and then be having fun the next.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2013

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    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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