American writer of adolescent and children’s literature, Gary Paulsen’s short story “Stop the Sun” describes the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by the father of a young Terry Erikson, due to his traumatic experiences in the army during the US deployment in the Vietnam War. The story is narrated by a third-person limited narrator.
Stop the Sun | Summary
The story opens with an introduction to Terry Erikson, a 13-year -old boy who aspires to become a good athlete. His slow progress in athleticism, however, bothers him, but not as much as he is bothered by his father’s eyes ‘going away’. It would happen sometimes while eating when his father’s eyes suddenly keep staring at some unknown thing in the distance, his fork stopped mid-air halfway up to his mouth. These episodes of ‘going away’ aren’t particularly troublesome, however. His mother has told him that this strange behavior is caused by his experiences in the Vietnam War, which the doctors call “Vietnam Syndrome”, actually referring to PTSD.
The doctors aren’t certain if the syndrome will get cured, as it does sometimes but doesn’t in other cases. But his mother is elusive about the details of what exactly caused this, always answering with one word – “Vietnam”. Moreover, he is forbidden to talk about or ask questions about it in his father’s presence as his mother knows that it can trigger him. Terry stops pushing his mother for information but keeps trying to understand it further, as he does with any problem he encounters. He tries searching for answers in his school library but only finds a few dry history books that only state numbers and nothing about the actual war experience. The next time, he approaches his history teacher, Mr. Carlson, to gain information about the Vietnam War, but is embarrassed to admit the true reason for his interest, passing it off as the involvement of a friend instead. He gains some understanding of combat experience from the books suggested by Mr. Carlson, but can’t visualize his father being one of those men.
As time goes on, his father’s eyes keep going away more and more often, and one day at the shopping mall, a disaster happens that Terry considers “the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to him”.
Accompanying his father on a shopping trip, they split up inside the mall, his father going to the hardware store while Terry enters a record store. He gets late in meeting his father and is unable to find him at their decided meeting spot. Suddenly, he spots a commotion and a crowd inside the hardware store, and fearing that something has gone wrong, rushes towards the store. As he pushes past his way to the front of the crowd, he encounters a spine-chilling scene –
“His father was squirming along the floor on his stomach. He was crying, looking terrified, his breath coming in short, hot pants like some kind of hurt animal.”
Traumatised by the picture of his father crawling in front of him, he kneels next to him and helps him stand as he and the owner lead him back to the owner’s office to calm him down. All the while, his father keeps whimpering. His mother arrives soon and takes them home in a taxi. As he waits for his mother, Terry is deeply ashamed of his father’s behavior in public, wanting to dig a hole for himself and hide there.
As the embarrassment keeps straining the relationship between him and his father, he finally decides to confront him about the incidents in the war. As Terry approaches his father to talk, he senses that his son has something heavy on his mind and asks him what it is. As Terry blurts out the word, “Vietnam”, his father physically recoils as if from a blow, exclaiming “No!”. He wishes to forget the “bad part” of his life, the one before he met his wife and had his son, but Terry insists on knowing. He wishes to help by being able to understand it better. His father’s eyes “go away” again, as he mumbles:
“there is so much of it that you cannot know it all, and to know only a part is … is too awful. I can’t tell you. I can’t tell anybody what it was really like.”
His voice breaks, making Terry feel horribly guilty and ashamed as he realizes that even though his body is there, his father is psychologically back on the battlefields of Vietnam again.
Breaking the silence, his father asks him if he thinks that just talking would make his memories and trauma go away, just like the psychiatrists assume. “But they don’t know. They weren’t there. Nobody was there but me and some other dead people, and they can’t talk because they couldn’t stop the morning.’” Despite his initial unwillingness, he starts narrating the incident that has traumatized him for so long. He along with his military unit had been crossing paddy fields in the night.
Walking in a slight misty rain, he imagines telling someone named Petey Kressler how nice the rain felt. But He did not get a chance to see Petey alive again. Suddenly they are surrounded and fired upon by enemy troops from three sides, none of them managing to get low enough. He hears the bullets hitting people as the enemy starts attacking with mortar shells. Now, there is nowhere to run to. Screams keep coming from all sides of him. As the Vietcong i.e., the armed communist forces of Northern Vietnam keep firing bullets and mortars, his father and his fellow soldiers have no help to call for, unable to use the radio or call for backup. Only the dark hides them from impending death. So, he crawls under the top section of Jackson’s body that has separated from the rest in the explosions, hides beneath it, and waits. After what seems like a long time, the firing stops and he realizes he is the only remaining survivor of the fifty-four men.
Breaking down into tears, his father insists to Terry that he cannot understand the fear. He knew that the darkness was his only refuge and the moment the sun rises, the Vietcong would look for survivors and finish them off. If only he could stop the dawn, he could make it alive. Futilely he holds on to the hope of stopping the dawn, but the moment the sky turns lighter, he fears his death. He hides under Jackson’s body as the soldiers approach the body, but they do not shoot him, leaving him after poking Jackson’s body once, not realizing someone alive is hiding underneath. However, his father insists that he was dead, despite the Vietcong not killing him –
“dead. I’m still dead, don’t you see? I died because I couldn’t stop the sun. I died. Inside where I am – I died.’
Despite not thinking that his father is dead, Terry understands that he can never understand the fear and the trauma that his father has experienced. But he now knows enough to empathize and never be embarrassed about his father’s actions that he has no control over.
Stop the Sun | Analysis
The story is an excellent portrayal of the horrors of war and the realities of the battlefield. Far from the hypermasculine, glorified images of soldiers that media and state propaganda try to uphold, war is not a place of glory and honor, but only of trauma and terror. The story contextualizes the Vietnam War not only as an attempted colonial conquest by the US but also as a horrific, traumatizing experience that continues to haunt soldiers decades after the battle is over.
Although he is a child, Terry’s initial embarrassment and attitude towards his father’s trauma symptoms reflect how little people as well as medical professionals understood PTSD in the 70s and the 80s. Psychiatric professionals label the symptoms as “Vietnam Syndrome”, not addressing the root cause of trauma while advocating a purely counseling-based approach of “talking about trauma” that is evidently insufficient to improve extremely severe cases of trauma such as those that lead to PTSD. The lack of resources on the Vietnam War, as well as the public awareness about it, indicates the attempts of the state to suppress narratives about a shameful period in US history.
Terry’s father’s insistence on the fact that nobody but him can truly understand what he felt that night conveys the idea of the unspeakable nature of trauma that cannot be adequately explained through language or through most other forms of representation.
The fact that his doctors and his son fail to really see the depth of his experiences, even though they try their best to, reinforces this incommunicability of traumatic experiences.
By the end of the story, however, Terry learns the truth about his father’s experiences in Vietnam. Even though he cannot completely understand him, he learns to empathize with his trauma-induced suffering, knowing that the only thing he should be embarrassed about is his previous embarrassment over his father’s symptoms, which are a result of a worldwide culture that romanticizes the soldier and glorifies war, hiding its gory realities underneath.
Stop the Sun | Themes
War – The story is centered upon the wartime experiences of Terry’s father, a veteran soldier posted in Vietnam during the Vietnam War that continue to haunt him throughout his life. It exposes the inaccuracy of the myth of war as a place of honor, glory, and heroism.
Trauma/PTSD – Terry’s father’s experiences in the Vietnam War have traumatized him for life, and has developed into Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, a severe form of neurosis that is a result of extremely traumatizing experiences like war, rape, vehicle accidents, childhood abuse, etc. Like an intensely disturbing memory that is not under our control, trauma keeps surfacing at unexpected times, triggered by the smallest of stimuli, taking one back to the very memories one tries hard to forget.
Empathy and Trauma Witnessing – Terry’s role in the story is one of bearing witness to a person’s trauma, in this case, his father’s, in an act called trauma witnessing. While an individual can never fully comprehend the extent of someone else’s trauma, empathy, support, and the validation of their experiences go a long way in healing and recuperation of PTSD victims, which Terry learns to do with his father, as does his mother.