“The war tried to kill us in the spring.”
“Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains.”
‘The war had killed thousands by September.”
These are the first sentences of the first three paragraphs of The Yellow Birds, an extraordinary war novel for its unlikely, shockingly poetic beauty.
The Yellow Birds is the story of 21-year-old John Bartle and his friend 18-year-old Daniel Murphy (Murph) during fighting in northern Iraq in 2004-5. Both are from Virginia and this seems to create a natural bond between them as they train for combat at Fort Dix, New Jersey, before deployment. But the reader learns very quickly that Murph will not make it back home. His death haunts the guilt-ridden Bartle long after he has returned home. In scenes that alternate between Bartle’s attempts to adjust to civilian life and his memories of the events of the war, we slowly learn what happened to Murph—the deep, crazy tragedy of it. And we learn why Bartle feels responsible for things outside his control.
Sterling, only 23 himself, is the tough sergeant of their platoon. He punches Bartle when Bartle promises Murph’s mom that he will watch over Murph and make sure that he comes home alive. This isn’t just because such a promise may be impossible (and in this case, is impossible) to keep; it’s because such a promise can take down the survivor as well as the war victim.
All of these characters are boys, not men, and this point is driven home time and again. They are not prepared for all they are going through—attacks by insurgents, unendurable fatigue and stress.
The story of Bartle’s life after his return home, his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as he attempts to piece together his friend’s fate and come to grips with it, is alternated with the details that lead up to Murph’s bizarre death and its aftermath. By the time Bartle comes home, he is not compulsively waving the flag, but rather questioning the purpose of his entire experience and his own motivation for joining up. He feels even worse when people call him a hero because he wishes he’d never gone through any of it.
Murph’s death and the fate of his body are merely a sketch, but are so powerfully drawn that they will live in the reader’s memory.
Thoughtful, deep and consistently engaging, The Yellow Birds will give readers a better understanding of the veterans who make it home.
High school housekeeping: Though short, this is one of the more powerful war novels I’ve read. The author, Kevin Powers is a veteran of the Iraq War and fought in Al Tafar where the novel is set. It will speak to adults as well as to teens. It may seem odd to also tell you that it is one of the most poetic YA books I’ve read, but Powers is simply an exceptional writer. In the same paragraph—in the same sentence—he can describe the beauty of the desert and its rhythms while cataloging the bodies and blood that litter its landscape.
I was afraid that the novel was too good—I know that sounds weird—but I worried that teen guys looking for a war book wouldn’t like Powers’ evocation of place, his ability to transform atmosphere into poetry. But we’ve handed it to several guys looking for war books, and each has come back with a positive review. They enjoyed and recommend it.
Caveat: As in any good war book, there is death—horrifying death, including dismemberment, people blown apart by bombs/suicide bombers, and the murder of civilians.