- The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers was published in September 2012
- Publisher: Little, Brown
- 240 pages
Reading the opening paragraph of The Yellow Birds is a good way to understand what type of novel you are about to read. Powers writes:
"The war tried to kill us in spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire" (3).
This kind of poetic language and lengthy description fills the book. Reading it is like a walk through tall grass -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes difficult. If you go slow and concentrate, you will appreciate rich metaphors and imagery; however, this is not a book that can be read for leisure. It took effort, and not just because of the language. It also was work to process the disturbing content of a novel about the ugly, unglorified realities of war.
The main plot of the novel is Bartle's relationship with his fellow private, Murph. Readers slowly find out how Murph died, and this mystery propels the novel and the narrator's story forward. This is not, however, a plot driven novel. The revelation about what happened to Murph is hardly primary. The mystery gives the book some momentum, but the real meat of the novel comes in the descriptions and poignant reflections on the war.
During one of the early combat scenes, Bartle reflects, "I wanted to tell everyone to stop shooting at him, to ask, 'What kind of men are we?' An odd sensation came over me, as if I had been saved, for I was not a man, but a boy, and that he may have been frightened, but I didn't mind that so much because I was frightened too, and I realized with a great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn't stop until I was sure that he was dead, and I felt better knowing we were killing him together and that it was just as well not to be sure you are the one who did it" (21). Here is what makes this character (or is it this author?) so powerful: he observes and questions with deep moral and philosophical sense while remaining firmly rooted to the base reality, to the fact that all the thinking and feeling in the world does not change his primal instinct to stay alive at all cost.
One of the gifts The Yellow Birds gives readers is a clear view into the way war breaks down soldiers and why it can be so difficult to reenter society. On the plane back to the U.S., Bartle says, "I woke with my head against the window, unaware that I'd been sleeping. My hand went to close around the stock of the rifle that was not there. An NCO from the third platoon sitting across the aisle saw it and smiled. 'Happened to me twice today,' he said. I did not feel better" (101). This situation is anchored by previous descriptions of combat and long, sleepless missions. The book moves back and forth in time, telling the war story and reentry story in alternating chapters. Later in the book, Bartle recalls a time during the war when he was wandering the streets and murmuring to himself, and he muses on the prophetic nature of the scene: "If someone could have seen me, if I could have been seen, then I might have looked like I'd been hurtled into my future, huddling under roofs of an urban landscape just below street level. My mutterings would not seem uncharacteristic, but rather inevitable, and the passing men and women would not pay me much attention. They might in their passing talk say, 'What a shame that he couldn't get it back together.' And one might answer, 'I know, so tragic.' But I would not embrace their pity. I might be numb with cold, but I would not ask for understanding. No, I would only sit muttering with envy for their broad umbrellas, their dryness, and the sweet, unwounded banality of their lives" (157).
The other tragedy that this novel exposes is what the Iraq war did to thousands of men who were barely out of boyhood. During basic training, Bartle says,"We'd had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams. So we'd come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be" (37). Then, on the plane ride home from the war, he says,"I knew, watching them, that if in any given moment a measurement could be made it would show how tentative was my mind's mastery over my heart. Such small arrangements make a life, and though it's hard to get close to saying what a heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and the end of my war: the old life disappearing into the dust that hung and hovered over Nineveh even before it could be recalled and longed for, young and unformed as it was, already broken by the time I reached the furthest working of my memory" (99). This is a novel about death, where it is clear that even those who come home had to kill something inside of themselves in order to survive.
The Yellow Birds is a good book, but not a pleasant book. It is an important book, but not one to be relished. I recommend it, but I think it would be particularly useful to read it with a friend, book club or class. This story is too real for entertainment and demands to be considered deeply. I recommend doing that with a friend.
For more factual information, here is an article about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the other effects of the Iraq War on soldiers.