Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers was the One Book pick in Philadelphia in 2014. I didn’t read it at the time, but it came up often in book club and other circles. After reading it, I can see why it was chosen and why it continues to be a topic of conversation.
Yellow Birds tells of one young soldier’s experience in the war in Iraq in 2004. It is fiction, but the author spent a tour in Iraq and wrote the book from a “desire to look for some truth that I hoped could be found of that most extreme of human experiences.”
Powers’ prose is beautiful and touching (not surprising when you learn he is a poet as well) and the story is told through a series of flashbacks bouncing between Iraq and the US before and after the main character’s tour.
Private Bartle is 21 years old when he meets Private Murphy at Fort Dix for basic training and then head off to Al Tafar, Iraq together. As they are leaving, Murphy’s mother asks Bartle to take care of her son. Bartle promises and is haunted by that promise the rest of the novel. Bartle and Murphy experience both boredom and absolute fear during their combat and are effected because of what they see and do in battle.
“We hardly noticed a change when September came. But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then. Perhaps light came a little more slowly to the city of Al Tafar, falling the way it did behind thin shapes of rooflines and angled promenades in the dark.”
Luckily, Powers descriptive language and the story of Bartle and Muphy help prevent the novel from becoming voyeuristic or an overt political statement. We know from the beginning that Murph does not survive the war and Bartle does not live up to the promise he made Mrs. Murphy. You get the sense that Murph’s death was due to becoming broken under the pressure of the war and the atrocities he saw, compounded by a letter from his girlfriend and a feeling that he had nothing to return home to, but it is not until the end that you learn more about Murph’s fate. From the beginning, you know that Bartle feels responsible and that he is being investigated by the CID for his part in Murph’s death, but when you learn the truth, it is sadder and more difficult than expected.
I think that Powers was more than successful in his aim. He told a story and brought the dust and heat of Iraq alive while sharing a universal story of grief, loss and the feeling of responsibility, even when the options were limited and not of one’s own making in an engrossing and beautiful way.