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'The Yellow Birds' by Kevin Powers - Book Club Discussion Questions

Reading Group Guide

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The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Little, Brown
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is a novel, but it deals with realities that are present for many people. Use these book questions to delve into Powers' portrait of war.

Spoiler Warning: These questions reveal details about the novel. Finish The Yellow Birds before reading on.

  1. Bartle is haunted by his time in the war and what happened to Murph. Do you think Murph's death is the cause of his anguish or do you think he would have had such a hard time reentering society even if Murph had lived?
  2. Why do you think Bartle wrote the fake letter to Murph's mom? What do you think it said?
  3. Do you sympathize with Bartle and Sterling's decision to dispose of Murph's body? How does this crime, for which Bartle was punished, compare to the other things he does during the war?
  4. "We knew the muezzin's song would soon warble its eerie fabric of minor notes out from the minarets, calling the faithful to prayer. It was a sign and we knew what it meant, that hours had passed, that we had drawn nearer to our purpose, which was as vague and foreign as the indistinguishable dawns an dusks with which it came" (7).

    At different points in the novel Bartle muses on the futility of the war -- the way the same city would be attacked year after year, the lack of a clear mission. Do you think The Yellow Birds is making a statement about the futility of this war? Or about the futility of war in general? Why or why not?

  5. "I remember feeling relief in basic while everyone else was frantic with fear. It had dawned on me that I'd never have to make a decision again. That seemed freeing, but it gnawed at some part of me even then. Eventually, I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of accountability" (35).

    Later in the novel: "We were unaware of even our own savagery now: the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence. Each action was a page in an exercise book performed by rote. I didn't care" (159).

    There are certain decisions that Bartle made -- to send the letter and to help Sterling get rid of Murph's body, but much of what he did was simply obeying orders. To what extent is he, as a private, accountable for his actions in the war (killing, destruction, etc)? Why did Bartle feel accountable?

  6. What did the chapter in Germany, the wandering to the church and then the bar, reveal about Bartle?
  7. "It was hardly perceptible, that noise. I still hear it sometimes...I was not sure if it really came from the women around the campfires, if they pulled their hair crying out in mourning or not, but I heard it and even now it seems wrong not to listen...I glanced at Murph and he returned a sad and knowing look" (85).

    How does The Yellow Birds underline the humanity on both sides of the war? Do you think it is possible to survive as a soldier while allowing yourself to be moved by the wails of mourning around you?

  8. "I remember myself, sitting in the dirt under the neglected and overgrown brush, afraid of nothing in the world more than having to show myself for what I had become" (132).

    And later in the novel: "I feel like I'm being eaten from the inside out and I can't tell anyone what's going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I'll feel like I'm ungrateful or something. Or like I'll give away that I don't deserve anyone's gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I've done but everyone loves me for it and it's driving me crazy" (144).

    Why do you think Bartle was so ashamed?

  9. Did The Yellow Birds affect your opinion about the Iraq War? War in general?
  10. Did you enjoy Powers' descriptive writing? How did it affect the novel?
  11. Rate The Yellow Birds on a scale of 1 to 5.
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