The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Little Brown and Company, New York, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-316-219365
The Yellow Birds chronicles the experiences of private John Bartle before, during, and after his experience fighting in the Iraq War. Each chapter alternates in time and place, with most taking place in Al Tafar, Iraq, where Bartle is deployed. Throughout this fractured chronology, the war is always present. “While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.”
Early in his training, 21-year-old Bartle is partnered with 18-year-old Daniel “Murph” Murphy. When Murph’s mother asks Bartle to keep her son safe, Bartle promises her that he will, even though he knows it’s a promise he cannot keep. Fighting in Al Tafar, Bartle sees bodies torn apart by gunfire and I.E.D.s. He sees the slaughter of innocent and the hatred coming from people he’s there to protect. He also sees Murph slowly slip away with each horror he witnesses. Bartle wants to help but his sergeant warns him, “If you get back to the States in your head before your ass is there too, then you are a f**king dead man…Murph is home, Bartle. And he’s gonna be there with a flag shoved up his ass before you know it.”
War literature is a staple of high school curriculum, whether it’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Slaughterhouse Five, or The Things They Carried. The Yellow Birds is both similar to and distinct from this great canon of work. It describes the horrors of war in gory, graphic detail like Remarque does in All Quiet. It’s got a fractured, disordered narrative like Vonnegut’s classic. And it focuses on the camaraderie of soldiers like O’Brien’s book.
What makes it distinct from these books, however, is its beautiful and haunting language and imagery. Kevin Powers is a poet and each line of description is inventive and precise. Bartle’s body at one point pulses with “an all-encompassing type of pain like my whole skin was made out of a fat lip.” Bartle’s internal conflict to find meaning in his life during and after the war is as gripping as the dangers he faces in Al Tafar. Long after the mystery of what happens to Murph is answered, the reader is left questioning how anyone survives such a brutal and horrific experience.
Information about the author
From the author’s page, “Kevin Powers was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry. He served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar. This is his first novel.”
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 11 and up