My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kevin Powers’s “The Yellow Birds” is about two young soldiers–Private John Bartle, twenty-one, and Private Daniel Murphy, eighteen. In the novel’s opening, September 2004, both are in Al Tafar, Iraq, and about to take part in a bloody battle to re-take the city..
The book then flips back to December 2003, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, before they ship out to Iraq. Private Murphy’s mother comes to visit and the fulcrom that this novel pivots on takes place during a conversation between Bartle, and Murphy’s mother, Donna, before they ship out to Iraq.
“And you’re gonna look out for him, right?” she asked.
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
“And Daniel, he’s doing a good job?”
“Yes, ma’am, very good. How the hell should I know, lady? I wanted to say. I barely knew the guy. Stop. Stop asking me questions. I don’t want to be accountable. I don’t know anything about this.
“John, promise me you’ll take care of him.”
“Of course.” Sure, sure I thought. Now you reassure me and I’ll go back and go to bed.
“Nothings gonna happen to him, right? Promise that you’ll bring him back home to me.”
“I promise,” I said. “I promise I’ll bring him back home to you.” (pgs. 46-47)
Private John Bartle has just a made a promise you know he won’t be able to keep. I kept reading, waiting for the moment when Bartle’s promise would be permanently broken and then read the rest of the novel to see how Bartle dealt with the ramifications of his broken promise.
Powers’s is a strong, lyrical writer. He has an MFA in poetry and it shows in his writing. His writing places you where Private Bartle is: a battle, the desert, Europe after he leaves Iraq, back in the States where his actions in Iraq catch up to him.
The novel moves between 2004–when the two are stationed in Iraq–and 2005–after Iraq. Moving between the two time periods tends to keep the reader a bit off balance, but it works, keeping the reader not quite sure of what is going to happen next, much like the feelings of the two soldiers.
I don’t usually read war novels–the exception being Tim O’Brien’s work. Kevin Powers’s debut novel is as powerful as O’Brien’s works, and I’m hoping to read more of Powers’s work.