Northern Lights by Tim O’Brien

Source: Personal library
Paperback, 372 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

Northern Lights by Tim O’Brien, which was our November and final book club pick of the year and a re-read for me, is the author’s first book, and not my favorite.  The story is about two brothers — Perry and Harvey — and one went to Vietnam and the other stayed home and got married.  Perry works for the agriculture department in Sawmill Landing, Minn., which is a small dying town with very few farmers left.  Heavily populated by Swedes, Finns, and Germans, the town has gone through periods of prosperity and periods of fallow ground.  Harvey is set to return from the war, and he’s altered in more than one way.  While O’Brien has crafted a story of brothers who were always different from one another — Harvey, the bull, considered the outdoorsy and confident brother, and Perry, the book smart and self-conscious brother — the story slowly unwinds to show just how false those perceived differences were.

“They call it a dying town.  People were always saying it: Sawmill Landing won’t last another decade.  But for all the talk, Perry never saw the death, only the shabby circumstances of the movements around him.  It was melancholia, seeded in the elements, but he had no idea where it started.”  (page 65)

When his brother returns, there is a heaviness that settles on the house, a house their father lived and died in and a house that was often filled with tension between the three men.  With Grace, Perry’s wife, in the house, there is a lightness from her womanly touch as she tries to keep the peace and make Harvey feel at home.  But then there is Addie, a young lady who flirts endlessly and teases all the time.  She’s an enigma, flirting with married Perry and with single Harvey, but it is clear that she’s never serious.  She likes the games.  The moral tension is palpable throughout the novel in whether Harvey and Perry are flirting with Addie, or whether Perry has to overcome his fears and hunt in the woods as his brother did with their father.

Rather than focus on the Vietnam War, Northern Lights by Tim O’Brien is a look at the home front after the soldier returns home and tries to fit back into society, as well as the brother’s struggle with seeing his own brother so changed.

***Unfortunately, due to car issues, I missed this meeting with the book club.  A meeting I was really looking forward to.***

About the Author:

Tim O’Brien was born in 1946 in Austin, Minnesota, and spent most of his youth in the small town of Worthington, Minnesota. He graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College in 1968. From February 1969 to March 1970 he served as infantryman with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, after which he pursued graduate studies in government at Harvard University. He worked as a national affairs reporter for The Washington Post from 1973 to 1974.  Here’s the reading group guide.

36th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.






32nd book (Vietnam War) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.


  1. Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) says

    I didn’t get a chance to read this one yet, but I hope to soon. Not sure he could ever top The Things They Carried, but I still enjoy reading his other books.

  2. bermudaonion(Kathy) says

    The plot sounds good to me so I’m bummed to see it wasn’t your favorite.