The Red Convertible (1984)

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"The Red Convertible" is a short story from Love Medicine, a collection of narratives written in 1974 by American author Louise Erdrich.

The story focuses on the relationship dynamics between Lyman Lamartine and his brother Henry, a soldier who was deployed in the Vietnam War. The Lamartine family lives on a reservation, just as Erdrich's did. The author, who is of German and Native American descent,[1] lived in Wahpeton, North Dakota, as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in the 1960s.

Plot summary[edit]

"The Red Convertible" is set in 1974 on a Chippewa Native American reservation in North Dakota. The setting briefly extends as far as Alaska, when Lyman and Henry embark on a road trip.

Lyman Lamartine narrates the story and recounts memories of his relationship with his brother, telling of the good times they had with the car until Henry's deployment to Vietnam. Lyman misses his brother dearly and writes him constantly, telling the reader about happy times and youthful trouble he and his brother got into when they were younger.

Three years after enlisting, Henry returns home and Lyman sees how he has changed during his time away. The old Henry has been replaced by a war-hardened soldier who cannot simply rejoin his and Lyman's youthful brotherly relationship. Henry wears only broken-in clothes and military boots from his time in Vietnam; he is either withdrawn or "jumpy and mean" (Erdrich 465).[2] Lyman had purchased a colored television for his mother's past birthday, and now regrets doing so when he sees Henry entranced by the vivid colors, rather than the seemingly distant black and white, that make the war still seem so present.[3]

Lyman discovered that Henry has not even thought about the car once since he returned. He drops hints about the car, hoping that those memories will return the old Henry and restore their relationship. Realizing that a relationship similar to what they once knew was no longer attainable, Lyman takes a hammer to the car in the hope that his brother will notice it, wanting to repair it.[2] When Henry sees the run-down convertible, he exclaims his interest for restoring the car for Lyman. "When I left, that car was running like a watch. Now I don't even know I can get it to start again, let alone get it anywhere near its old condition" (Erdrich 464). Henry works hard on restoring the car all day and all night in the cold, alone, for a month[2] as Lyman still hopes that the car returns his brother to what he was before: "I thought the car might bring the old Henry back somehow" (Erdrich 378).

After Henry patches the car, the two take it for a drive around the town and end up down at the river. Lyman dares to hope that the repaired car means a repaired relationship.[3] Henry tries to give Lyman full ownership of the car but Lyman constantly refuses, and two brothers start to wrestle and fist-fight over the issue. When Lyman gets a good hit under Henry's chin, Henry begins to laugh and tells Lyman to "Ha! Ha! Take good care of it" (Erdrich 311). The brothers enjoy a short moment of laughter and then sit and think about how things used to be. After spending a few good minutes together, Henry tells Lyman that he needs to cool off, so he runs and jumps into the river. However, apathetically, Henry remarks that his boots have filled with water and he goes under in the current. Lyman rushes to rescue his brother but to no avail. He then turns on the car and sends it into the river, watching it sink to its demise just like Henry.


Lyman Lamartine - narrator of the story, he recounts the events of his relationship with his brother and the good times they shared with the red convertible, and the downfall of their relationship after his brother changes from three years of military service.

Henry Lamartine - Lyman's brother and closest companion, he is drafted into the Vietnam War and returns a changed man. He struggles to re-adapt to his normal life with his family at home and eventually is drowned by his boots filling with water, or more symbolically by mentalities he adopted during his time in the war.

Susy - a girl that the brothers meet on a road trip and spontaneously decide to drive back to her home to Chicken, Alaska.

Bonita Lamartine - the boys' 11-year-old younger sister who took a picture of the boys that Lyman kept. The picture shows Henry's face hidden with holes of shadows and Lyman's face bright with sun.


The main symbol used in "The Red Convertible" is the car itself. The red flashy car represents the youthful, vibrant, and exciting relationship between Lyman and Henry. Before the war, the car is in mint condition and the boys are happy. The boys spend much of their time together and care for each other deeply, as shown by their actions and the road trip they go on. During the war, when Henry and Lyman are separated, the car is left alone, sitting in the garage untouched. When Henry comes back from the war a changed man, Lyman tries to rekindle their relationship, but when his efforts fail, he destroys the car, and in turn symbolically destroying their relationship. Henry wants to remain close with his brother and restore his personality, so he spends countless hours trying to repair the car. When he does, the boys seem to have a glimmer of hope as they go for a drive to reminisce about the good times. At the end, when Henry drowns and is lost forever, Lyman pushes the car into the river to sink with him, representing that the connection that they once had is now drowned, dead, and lost forever.

Another minor symbol in the story is the picture that Bonita took of the boys with the red convertible. In it, Lyman's face is clear and happy, while Henry's face is hidden by a shadow in the picture. This image foreshadows the events to come, and Henry's fading away from his family.

Erdrich uses the relationship of Lyman and Henry to express the saddening effects of war on close relationships between soldiers and people they care about at home.[3][4] War causes change in soldiers and leads the hardened war-torn people to be distanced both physically and mentally from their families.


  1. ^ Hatch, Rachel (23 October 2009). "Celebrated Author Louise Erdrich Speaks at Illinois Wesleyan". Illinois Wesleyan University. Retrieved 2011-11-11. 
  2. ^ a b c Martin, Michael (25 February 2002). "No Medicine: Erdrich's "The Red Convertible"". Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c Walker, Kristen (15 July 2008). "Symbolism Found in the Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich". Yahoo!. Retrieved 27 September 2012. 
  4. ^ "The Red Convertible: Introduction". Inc. Retrieved 27 September 2012. 
  • Erdrich, Louise. “The Red Convertible.” The Story and Its Writer : an Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. Compact 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2011. 305-312. Print.
  • Erdrich, Louise. "The Red Convertible." In McMahan, Elizabeth, et al., Eds., Literature and the Writing Process. New York: Prentice Hall, 463-469. Print.