The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers.
230 pp. Little Brown & Company. $14.99.
Bartle, the soldier in Kevin Powers’ award-winning novel, The Yellow Birds, tells us:
“I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true.”
We each see life with our own eyes. The emotional core, the truth of an experience, can’t be generalized but it can be distilled. Debut novelist Powers spent a year in Iraq working in a bomb disposal squad and as an army machine gunner. He is also a poet, someone with the literary skill to move us into Private Bartle’s mind where we see the truth of at least one soldier’s war.
Twenty-one-year-old Bartle who is about to be deployed to Iraq has promised the mother of Private Murphy that he’ll bring her eighteen-year-old son back alive. Scenes veer between harrowing descriptions of combat and disorienting memories upon Bartle’s return home, both heightened by lyrical images of the ordinary.
A bloody battle is fought in Al Tafar near the walls of ancient Nineveh. The enemy is shot, limbs are blown off and bodies strewn across the dusty landscape. Then, slowly, people return to open their shops once more and drink tea together. The soldiers wave and toss candy to the children who, by next year, will be shooting at them as the war cycles endlessly on.
Murphy, younger and less experienced than Bartle, rapidly spirals downward in the weeks following the battle. Bartle struggles to keep his promise to Murphy’s mother to protect him, but cannot–as we learn early on–and is haunted upon his return by his own lingering guilt and vividly-recalled images of crumpled and broken bodies.
Back home, Bartle steps off the plane and enters the airport:
The ghosts of the dead filled the empty seats of every gate I passed: boys destroyed by mortars and rockets and bullets and IEDs to the point that when we tried to get them to a medevac, the skin slid off, or limbs barely held in place detached, and I thought that they were young and had girls at home or some dream that they thought would make their lives important. They had been wrong of course. You don’t dream when you are dead. I dream. The living dream, though I won’t say thanks for that.
Some books, this one included, hold both risk and responsibility. The Yellow Birds is a risk worth taking. After reading Powers’ book, I felt drained, angry, helpless. It would have been easier had I decided not to read it, to look away from the hideousness and anguish of war—to not see, not listen, not ever know what happens daily on the other side of the world.
Read this book for the sake of those who live every day with memories of war.
Read it for those who can’t choose to look away.