he Use of SettingWhere does the story of Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong take place?
Upon reading the story, one would first assume that it takes place in Vietnam.
Upon further examination, however, it becomes quite evident that it really takes
place inside Rat Kiley’s head. This isn’t to declare the story false; instead,
one should examine the influence and literary freedom that Rat flexes upon the
truth. “For Rat Kiley facts were formed by sensation, not the other way
around.” (101) The story occurs in two separate but equally chaotic places:
Vietnam, and Rat’s head. The story intertwines between the two settings, and in
order to completely grasp the idea behind them, one must first recognize, then
separate and analyze the two settings.
Upon the first reading of this work, the reader finds himself dropping
into the story of a seemingly misplaced girl in Vietnam. The role of Rat Kiley
seems somewhat minor and irrelevant. Upon the second and third times through,
however, his role as the storyteller stands out. It becomes more evident that
he holds Mary Anne with the highest regard. He romanticizes her relationship
with the war. He is so amazed with the fact that a girl can be seduced by the
lure of the wilderness that he begins to talk about her with the listeners as if
she were the attractive girl from school that everyone knows but nobody dates.
” ‘You knowI loved her. Mary Anne made you think about those girls back home,
how clean and innocent they all are.’ ” (123) Rat is pushing his views upon
the listener. He is shaping how the story is seen. The reader sees “triple-
canopied jungle, mountains unfolding into higher mountains, ravines and gorges
and fast-moving rivers and waterfalls and exotic butterflies and steep cliffs
and smoky little hamlets and great valleys of bamboo and elephant grass.” (103)
The actual reality of the situation is added by the narrator, as extrapolated
from Rat: that they were in an almost completely indefensible situation. Had
somebody cared enough to take control of the little base, there would be no
resistance. Rat wanted to let the reader know his opinion on the citizens of
the Viet Cong, how he wants the listener to think of them. “Mary Anne asked,
‘They’re human beings, aren’t they? Like everybody else?’ Fossie nodded. He
loved her.” (107) Rat lets us know that he thinks the VC are less then human.
Why did Fossie nod, in Rat’s opinion? Not because he thought Fossie felt she was
right, but because he loved her. Because Rat feels that the VC are subhuman,
part of the jungle, he sees Fossie’s nod as a patronizing nod to an unknowing
inductee to the jungle. Rat, at every turn, tries to “make the truth burn so
hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.” (101) Rat makes the reader
constantly want to love Vietnam, to love the intricacies of the jungle, to love
the trill of danger and imminent threat of death. ” ‘It’s like trying to tell
somebody what chocolate tastes like.’ ” (123) The audience gets a somewhat
gentle reminder from Mitchell Sanders, as he declares ” ‘Or shit.’ ” (123) “But
Rat Kiley couldn’t help it. He wanted to bracket the full range of meaning.”
(116) Rat wants to inject within the reader a love similar to his toward Mary
Anne. He wants the reader to want to become one with the jungle. He wants the
reader to understand that there is a base human connection with nature, and that
one doesn’t have to be a man to feel it. It isn’t about man vs. woman, it’s
about humans vs. nature. Everybody comes in without a clue. They get their
view on the future and humanity raped away by the deflowering of reality in the
jungle. They begin to understand what matters and what doesn’t. On it’s
superficial level, Song Tra Bong is about a story. This story takes place
within a character. Rat “had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the
flow, inserting little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion.”
(116) Rat molded the view of the story. He shows the reader what Rat deems
important, and he constantly adds his own twist to it all. As he said, he loved
her. He is going to put her on a pedestal for the world to view and appreciate.
On the top, the character (at this level, the only one that matters) is the
setting. Just as Vietnam had it’s oddities and tendencies, Rat’s mind had it’s
own pockmarked landscape with it’s own jungles and rain forests.
Now that one has identified the skew of the stained glass window the
story is viewed the through, one can begin to fully appreciate what happened to
Mary Anne, and the conflict she encounters. She finds herself torn between the
civilized world which has her long time love, and the uncivilized world, Vietnam
where she can exist in her purest form. There is a slow transition, as she
appears in preppy clothes, and she moves to “the habits of the bush. No
cosmetics, no fingernail filing. She stopped wearing jewelry, cut her hair short
and wrapped it in a dark green bandanna.” (109) She finishes in a bizarre
fashion, wearing her culottes, pink sweater, and tongue necklace. “She had
crossed to the other side. She was part of the land.” (125) How does this
happen? What makes this girl who has everything she wants give it all up to
live like an animal?
Mary Anne finally shed the illusions of grandeur from home and decided
she wanted to be a woman of the bush. It all starts with natural curiosity.
Mary Anne wants to understand the ways of war. She wants to understand it’s
people. However, she inexplicably finds herself out on ambush with the Green
Berets. “The Endorphins start to flow, and the adrenaline, and you hold your
breath and creep quietly through the moonlit nightscapes; you become intimate
with danger; you’re in touch with the far side of yourself, as though it’s
another hemisphere.” (123) She is beginning to become seduced by her basic
human instincts, the ones that say “Organized society is bad. Self dependency is
good. One should live within the wilderness. One should wear a necklace of
Being set in Vietnam, such a recognizable word, one so synonymous with
war, the irony of the situation leaps off the pages. Here is a man who has been
in-country for a decent amount of time. By bringing his girlfriend over, he is
bringing into the fray somebody who has no idea of the dangers of the bush,
somebody who, being a girl, and according to modern and past military policy,
shouldn’t have been there. He should be the one who, in relation to her,
understands the war. However, this doesn’t hold true. She becomes the
understanding and wise one, as she exclaims “You hide in this little fortress,
behind wire and sandbags, and you don’t know what’s out there or what it’s all
about or how it feels to really live in it.” (121) A month earlier, he could
have told her the exact same thing to prevent her from becoming so intimate with
the country, it’s inhabitants, and the war itself.
At it’s base level, the inner core of Song Tra Bong, the interaction
between setting and character is immense. So immense, in fact, that the setting
itself becomes a character, interacting with the other characters, causing
conflict. At it’s base level, Song Tra Bong is about the land, and maturing to
return to innocence. It’s about evolving so one can devolve. It’s about
returning to the land, and it’s about the land seducing people to return to it.
” ‘Sometimes I want to eat this place. Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole
country – the dirt, the death – I just want to eat it and have it there inside
me. I feel close to myself.’ ” (121) Mary Anne now knows who she is. She has
found her calling.
In Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, setting is paramount. If one were
to take this story and place it in New York City, it would be laughed at. As
Mary Anne said, ” ‘You can’t feel like this anywhere else.’ ” (121) The story
takes place in two places. On one level, it takes place in the heart of the
jungle, deep in Vietnam. On this level, the setting plays such an important
role that it becomes a character. It seduces Mary Anne, and it talks to her.
The story also takes place in the heart of Rat Kiley. On this level, the
character influences the story in such a way that he becomes the top level
setting. In the end, ” ‘it wasn’t all that complicated. The girl joined the
zoo. One more animal – end of story.’ ” (117) But as Mitchell Sanders not-so-
gently tells Rat ” ‘ Yeah, fine. But tell it right.’ ” (117), the reader must
also try to read it right. If the different settings are identified, separated
and analyzed, then the true idea behind the story comes out.