‘The Things They Carried’

Award-winning fiction blends veterans’ memoirs, strong story-telling, chosen as focus for federally funded reading program in West County

By Cody McFarland, Associate Editor

One book will be the driving commonality of West County’s diverse residents during the next month, beginning Friday with a dramatic interpretation of the book’s first chapter in the Knox Center at 7 p.m.

Contra Costa College has partnered with the West Contra Costa County Library, which received a grant through the National Endowment for the Arts, to host a communitywide reading program focused on Tim O’Brien’s acclaimed book on the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried.”

Known as the Big Read, the program is designed to get the community engaged with reading and each other, to commemorate both veterans and the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and to highlight the cultures that emigrated as a consequence of that war.

“This is a classic, contemporary novel about the Vietnam War, but it’s more than just that. It’s about more than war,” English assistant professor Heather Roth said. “It touches on trauma and how people respond to it, and on recovering from trauma by being able to tell one’s story.”

Recognizing the Big Read as both enlightening and cathartic, Roth said she is excited for the many free events scheduled both off and on campus spanning through the end of May. The events include group and panel discussions, guest speakers and theatrical performances, all of which are free of charge. 

“One does not need to have read the book to attend the first event,” she said. “People may be influenced to read the book after watching the theatrical kickoff event.”

The Word for Word Performing Arts Company will do a staged reading of the first chapter Friday at 7 p.m. in the Knox Center. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., tickets are not required and seating is on a first come-first serve basis.

Currently, any of West County’s participating libraries have plenty of copies of “The Things They Carried” available for rent, Ian Richards, senior community library manager, said. Copies are also available for purchase at CCC’s Bookstore.

The three on-campus panelist discussions, all held on the main floor of the Library, will take place April 15, 22 and 27 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The last panel, titled “The Vietnam War and Refugee Reflections,” will feature Vietnamese-American author and journalist Andrew Lam, as well as San Pablo Mayor Cathy Chao Rothberg, the first Mien-American mayor in the United States.

The April 22 panel, titled “The War at Home: The Draft, Protests, and Resistance,” gives students the chance to hear from individuals who were roughly the same age as students now during the war, comparing anti-war movements then and now. Vietnam-era veteran and retired fine and media arts professor John Diestler, Yippie activist Judy Gumbo Albert and former San Pablo mayor and adjunct political science professor Leonard McNeil will be sharing their experiences.

The first panel, one week from today, will feature veterans from Vietnam and the Middle East.

While off-campus events do not end until May 28, CCC’s on-campus events conclude May 5 with a discussion led by adjunct English professor and Vietnam-era veteran Michael Hassett, titled “Vietnam: Childhood’s End,” in LA-107.

Hassett said he agreed to participate in discussions for sake of “solidarity with other veterans.” He is interested in interacting with other veterans of recent wars and talking about their shared plight, having experienced the hardships of war.

“Hopefully it opens up a dialogue between old and young veterans,” he said.

CCC Library co-coordinator Judith Flum said, “The idea behind the Big Read is to try and get a whole community to read one book and open up discourse about it. We’re hoping to get students, faculty, staff and members of the community all together and talking.”

For more information or to volunteer to assist the program, contact Flum or Roth at [email protected] or [email protected], respectively.