Yellow Birds (Powers)

The Yellow Birds
Kevin Powers, 2012
Little, Brown, & Company
230 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316219365

A novel written by a veteran of the war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds is the harrowing story of two young soldiers trying to stay alive.

"The war tried to kill us in the spring." So begins this powerful account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. Bound together since basic training when Bartle makes a promise to bring Murphy safely home, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for.

In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes actions he could never have imagined.

With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a hidden war on mothers and families at home, The Yellow Birds is a groundbreaking novel that is destined to become a classic. (From the publisher.)

See the PBS interview with Kevin Powers about The Yellow Birds.

Author Bio
• Birth—July 11, 1980
• Where—Richmond, Virginia, USA
• Education—B.A., Virginia Commonwealth University;
   M.F.A., University of Texas-Austin
• Awards—Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award (see below)
• Currently—lives in Florence, Italy (as of December, 2012)

Kevin Powers is an American fiction writer, poet, and Iraq War veteran. He was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, the son of a factory worker and a postman, and enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of seventeen. Six years later, in 2004, he served a one-year tour in Iraq as a machine gunner assigned to an engineer unit.

Powers' first novel The Yellow Birds, which drew on his experiences in the Iraq War, garnered a lucrative advance from publisher Little, Brown. It has been called "a classic of contemporary war fiction""by the New York Times. Michiko Kakutani, book critic for the Times, subsequently named the novel one of her 10 favorite books of 2012. KakutaniW wrote, "At once a freshly imagined bildungsroman and a metaphysical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory, it’s a novel that will stand with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, The Things They Carried, as a classic of contemporary war fiction."

In an interview, Powers explained to the Guardian newspaper why he wrote the book

One of the reasons that I wrote this book was the idea that people kept saying, "What was it like over there?" It seemed that it was not an information-based problem. There was lots of information around. But what people really wanted was to know what it felt like; physically, emotionally and psychologically. So that's why I wrote it.

Asked about what he felt was the best book of 2012, writer Dave Eggers said this to the Observer:

There are a bunch of books I could mention, but the book I find myself pushing on people more than any other is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. The author fought in Iraq with the US army, and then, many years later, this gorgeous novel emerged. Next to The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, it's the best thing I've read about the war in Iraq, and by far the best novel. Powers is a poet first, so the book is spare, incredibly precise, unimproveable. And it's easily the saddest book I've read in many years. But sad in an important way.

Not all critics were so laudatory of The Yellow Birds, however. Ron Charles of the Washington Post wrote that "frankly, the parts of The Yellow Birds are better than the whole. Some chapters lack sufficient power, others labor under the influence of classic war stories, rather than arising organically from the author’s unique vision." Michael Larson of Salon argues that the book is ruined by "boggy lyricism... There’s never a sky not worthy of a few adjectives." And Theo Tait of the London Review of Books argued that the book "labours under the weight of a massive Hemingway crush.... a trainwreck, from the first inept and imprecise simile, to the tin-eared rhythms, to the final incoherent thought."

Recognition and Awards
Winner - Guardian First Book Award, 2012
Finalist - National Book Award (Fiction), 2012
Finalist - Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, 2012
Winner - Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, 2013

As of December, 2012, Powers lives in Florence, Italy where his wife is in graduate studieds for fashion design.
(Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 7/20/2013.)

Book Reviews
A remarkable first novel, one that stands with Tim O'Brien's enduring Vietnam book, The Things They Carried, as a classic of contemporary war fiction. The Yellow Birds is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier's coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory. Its depiction of war has the surreal kick of Mr. O'Brien's 1978 novel, Going After Cacciato, and a poetic pointillism distinctly its own; they combine to sear images into the reader's mind with unusual power.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

A first novel as compact and powerful as a footlocker full of ammo.... The fractured structure replicates the book's themes. Like a chase scene made up of sentences that run on and on and ultimately leave readers breathless, or like a concert description that stops and starts, that swings and sways, that makes us stamp our feet and clap our hands—the nonlinear design of Powers's novel is a beautifully brutal example of style matching content. War destroys. It doesn't just rip through bone and muscle, stone and steel; it fragments the mind as a fist to a mirror might create thousands of bloodied, glittering shards.... Kevin Powers has something to say, something deeply moving about the frailty of man and the brutality of war, and we should all lean closer and listen.
Benjamin Percy - New York Times Book Review

Throughout The Yellow Birds, amid the gore and the terror and the boredom, you can hear notes of Powers's work as a poet.... More than a little of that rich language would risk turning the novel florid, but Powers rarely oversteps. In the best sections, he moves gracefully between spare, factual description of the soldiers' work to simple, hard-won reflections on the meaning of war.... His lacerating honesty never feels false or fails to shock.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

This moving debut from Powers (a former Army machine gunner) is a study of combat, guilt, and friendship forged under fire. Pvt. John Bartle, 21, and Pvt. Daniel Murphy, 18, meet at Fort Dix, N.J., where Bartle is assigned to watch over Murphy. The duo is deployed to Iraq, and the novel alternates between the men’s war zone experiences and Bartle’s life after returning home. Early on, it emerges that Murphy has been killed; Bartle is haunted by guilt, and the details of Murphy’s death surface slowly. Powers writes gripping battle scenes, and his portrait of male friendship, while cheerless, is deeply felt. As a poet, the author’s prose is ambitious, which sets his treatment of the theme apart—as in this musing from Bartle: “though it’s hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and end of my war.” The sparse scene where Bartle finally recounts Murphy’s fate is masterful and Powers’s style and story are haunting.
Publishers Weekly

This first novel by Powers traces the story of a young soldier named John Bartle and his friend Murph during fighting in northern Iraq in 2005. Sterling, the tough sergeant of their platoon, has informally assigned Bartle the job of watching over Murph, who is young, small, and not much of a soldier, and Bartle had also promised Murph's mother that he would take care of him. As the horrors of war escalate, all the soldiers seem to lose their grip, and Murph finally snaps, leaving the compound and forcing Bartle and Sterling to search for him through the nightmarish landscape of a ravaged city. Alternating with this plot is the story of Bartle's life after his return home, as he attempts to piece together his friend's fate and come to grips with it. Verdict: Thoughtful and analytical, the novel resonates as an accurate and deeply felt portrayal of the effects of post-combat syndrome as experienced by soldiers in the disorienting war in Iraq. While the battle scenes are effectively dramatized, the main character's inner turmoil is the focal point of this well-done novel.
Library Journal

A novel about the poetry and the pity of war. The title comes from an Army marching chant that expresses a violence that is as surprising as it is casual.... As the war intensifies in Nineveh province, they witness and participate in the usual horrors that many soldiers in war are exposed to. As a result of his experiences, Murph starts to act strangely, becoming more isolated and withdrawn until he finally snaps. Eventually he, too, becomes a victim of the war, and Bartle goes home to face the consequences of a coverup in which he'd participated. Powers writes with a rawness that brings the sights and smells as well as the trauma and decay of war home to the reader.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Yellow Birds:

1. The Army tells the soldiers that death is the "great unifier," that it brings people "closer together than any other activity on earth." But Bartle thinks the more common belief among soldiers is that "if you die, it becomes more likely that I will not." What are your thoughts on either philosophy of death. Is the concept of death in civilian life different from war? Is death in war simply a matter of numbers, lacking any significance?

2. What do you make of the troops killing the single man, alone in front of a wall, and the older couple in the car (pg. 20-22). Why are they summarily killed? Is their killing an inevitability of war? Is the killing justified in wartime?

3. Birds, the orchard, and hyacinths are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book. What might their significance be? Dust and footprints are also referred to frequently. Why? What is their thematic significance—any ideas?

4. Talk about the colonel who addresses the troops while in front of the cameras. Do you think his concern for the troops is genuine...or is he preening before the media? He tells the soldiers that some will not return. Why does he tell them that? Should he have done so? What does Bartle think of the colonel's admission (pg. 87)?

5. The colonel also tells the troops that in the coming battle "you may not do anything more important in your life" (pg. 89). How do Murph and Bartle respond to that statement? Whose perspective do you agree with?

6. What do you think of Sterling? What does Bartle think of him? Does your opinion of Sterling change? Does Bartle's? What happens to Sterling...and why?

7. Why do U.S. troops end up fighting three times, in three years, for Al Tafar?

8. Bartle says that "we were unaware of even our own savagery now: the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence." What do you make of that statement?

9. Murph seems to give up. What precipitates his loss of will? Does it start with his girlfriend's letter telling him she has found someone else? Bartle tortures himself that he should have been able to pinpoint the moment. To what degree is Bartle responsible for Murph?

10. What is Murph's attraction to the young female medic? Why does he sit and watch her? Even Bartle finds her compelling—why? What does she mean to both of them?

11. SPOILER ALERT: Why does Bartle not want to follow standard procedures with regard to Murph's body? Is the decision the right one? Is it—was it—fair to deprive Murph's mother of the return of her son's body? What about the old hermit with the mule—why does Sterling shoot him?

12. What is the significance of the title, The Yellow Birds? Consider the canaries from the coal mines that Murph describes to Bartle (pg. 139). What about them...and why might the book be named after them? What about all the other mentions of birds throughout the book (see Question 3)?

13. SPOILER ALERT: The following aren't questions but observations: note Bartle's mention of Murph's eyes, as early as page 7, which  have already "fallen farther into his sockets." Consider how that represents a foreshadowing of his death. Also note the parallel between Bartle's floating in the James River once he's back home and the disposal of Murph's body into the Tigris.

14. On the plane home, Bartle feels he has "left the better portion" of himself behind. What does he mean? By the time he arrives in Richmond, he has lost his way—and his will—as if he had "vanished into thin air." How would you describe his condition? Is his behavior typical of returning vets?

15. SPOILER ALERT: We aren't told how Bartle's trial, or court martial, plays out, exactly what he is charged with. How—or why—do you think he ends up in prison? What is he guilty of? Is he guilty?

16. What do you think the letter to Murph's mother says? She comes to visit Bartle at Fort Knox. Why—what does she want? Bartle says she offers him no forgiveness, yet he is glad she came. Would you have visited Bartle under the circumstances.

17. Bartle's own mother has no ability to understand her son when he returns. Is there any way that any of us can grasp what a soldier's experience in battle is like? How are we ever to integrate them back into society? How are we to heal them? Can they be healed?

18. What is Bartle's emotional state by the end of the novel? Has healing occurred? What might the future hold for him? Why does the book end with Bartle's vision of Murph's floating remains?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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