Tag Archives: River Teeth

Essaying: Jon Kerstetter’s “Triage”

(Jon Kerstetter‘s “Triage” is included in  Best American Essays 2013; it originally appeared in issue 13.2 of River Teeth.)

One powerful tool available to essayists–and other writers–is the section break. It can provide the reader with a chance to pause and absorb what she or he has just read. It can turn the essay on its ear and take the reader in a whole new direction, one that may not seem to relate to what has come before. It can allow the writer to explore what has already been written from a new angle, telescoping the lens farther from or closer to the subject and providing a new perspective.

In “Triage,” Jon Kerstetter breaks his essay into six distinct sections, most just a couple of pages long. He starts at a combat surgical hospital in Baghdad during October 2003. It’s filled with soldiers who have been injured in IED attacks throughout the city. Most of the soldiers followed the conventional path of surgery to post-op to ICU. Medical staff are exhausted but moving as fast and efficiently as possible. There’s one soldier in triage. He was expectant, meaning no one knew what to do to help him, and everyone expected him to die. The essay goes from there to explore what puts one patient on the list for immediate surgery and another patient in the category of “expectant” and waiting quietly in the triage room.

The second section begins with the dictionary definition of triage, a move that makes writing instructors like me cringe, but he delves deep into the definition, works through its etymological history, and exposes the fraught meanings behind it. He describes the two weeks he spent in a Combat Casualty Care Course designed to teach medical officers how to decide which patients go into one room and which go into another. Then there’s a section that details the different categories the military uses to classify patients. The penultimate section is where he reflects upon the relationship between what he was taught to do on the battlefield and what it actually means to decide someone is beyond hope. The final, brief section shows Kerstetter today, still struggling but well aware he is alive when others are not.

At a writing conference, I once heard a writer say that section breaks were a sign of a lazy writer. I was immediately offended. He argued that the best essayists know how to weave everything together into a cohesive unit. Perhaps because I began writing as a poet, the idea of a section or stanza break does not seem to be a sign of a weak writer but is just another tool, one that can be used with a heavy hand or one that can be wielded deftly. Kerstetter’s “Triage” is an example of deftness.

Some lines to ponder:

“The captain in charge of the expectant soldier’s unit told the general and me that this was their first soldier to be killed–then he corrected himself and said this was the first soldier in their unit to be assigned to triage” (124).

“In the end, it was decided that my decision to shoot, while potentially serving a greater need, may have been a bit aggressive, but that it was in fact my decision, and my decision met the needs of the mission. All ethical considerations aside, I felt that I understood the necessity and the theory of triage. I understood it as part of my job” (127).

“If the triage officer calculates that a patient falls into the expectant category, treatment is withheld in order to allow medical teams to concentrate more efficiently on those soldiers with potentially survivable injuries. Preserving the fighting force is the central tenet of the process” (127).

“Saving lives is the endpoint of all triage. Let one life go, save three others, or five, or maybe ten. The ratios don’t matter, the benefits do. And a benefit in war always comes at a cost” (128).


Essaying: Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge”

Growing up in the 70s, a lot of my early reading consisted of TimeLife books and encyclopedias aimed at children and adolescents. Even today, I’ll spend an hour or so diving into Wikipedia wormholes, clicking link after link to find trivia I’ll annoy the husband with at dinner. This is why the first sentence of Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge” grabbed me because he described how his parents brought home a ten-volume set of The Book of Knowledge in 1952. Originally published in volume 13, number 2, of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, it is the concluding essay in Best American Essays 2013.

I could not help but think that Cheryl Strayed, this year’s BAE editor, put this essay at the end of the collection for a reason. Many of us know Strayed because of the writing she did about losing her mother when Strayed was in her 20s. Harvey’s mother shot herself when Harvey was twelve-years-old. Soon after, Harvey and his brother began a new life in Kentucky (they had been living in Illinois) with their father and a new stepmother. Harvey says directly that this new life was a good one. He grew up loved and taken care of.

Then, after he was married and had his own kids, his grandmother (his mother’s mother) gave him letters his mother had written to her during the last years of her life. He wasn’t initially interested in reading them, perhaps out of a fear they would disrupt that stable life he’d built for himself. He kept them filed away until 2010 when he was in his sixties and over five decades had passed since her death.

He plays with narrative style in this essay, providing some historical background on The Book of Knowledge while using the style of the children’s encyclopedia to ask and attempt to answer questions about life and death that no one can answer, especially in a set of reference books aimed at children. Like Strayed, he searches through his mother’s life and death for some kind of meaning. Though his sense of loss seems much more dormant than Strayed’s, the loss is still there, even as a man in his sixties who has led a happy life. And isn’t the essay the place for such searching, such questioning? Of course it is.

Some of my favorite quotations to pique your interest:

“I remembered almost nothing of my life or her life before the suicide except a few vivid flashes–images, really—with the rest blown away by her death, and for years I was resigned to my ignorance, and perhaps even content with it” (277).

“Armed with letters and a children’s encyclopedia, I was determined to know who this woman was and, with luck, claim a legacy of beauty and wonder from a devastating event” (280).

“When I was a boy, I lay in bed at night listening to my parents fight downstairs. The arguments began as conversation mixed with the clinking sound of ice in glasses, the words spoken softly, clipped and brittle, dipping to inaudibility when whispered. The clicking of tree branches that is prelude to the storm. Eventually the voices rose until the two were shouting and finally screaming furiously, the sound coming through the walls in unarticulated growls” (284).

“Suicide is about the survivors” (290).

“When I read them, I got to know her—for the first time, really–know her and miss her. Miss her, not some made-up idea of her” (293).