Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
This is almost a painful book review to write, as this book has seared itself into my soul. Over the last few months, I kept hearing about this Iraq war book, a finalist for the National Book Award as well as constant comparisons to Catch 22 and The Things They Carried, two of my favorite books to read and teach. However, I'm not a particularly huge fan of war books (though I say that having read Matterhorn about the Vietnam war last year - one book I will never forget). I let Yellow Birds sit in my Wish List on Audible for some time, needing to be in just the right mood, but let's face it, what is the proper frame of mind for a war story? For the last eleven years, we have all seen the stories, the increasingly smaller articles hidden on back pages when troops are killed, but the headlines seem to move us less and less. Support for our soldiers remains strong, appreciating their love and defense of country, but what is the real affect of battle, of carnage, of death? 'Baptism by fire' forms that soldier, giving birth to a dissimilar person, but who had to die for that new being to rise? Kevin Powers shows us that no one comes back home the same person who originally left, and that is the ultimate cost of war.
On the surface, Yellow Birds is a story of soldiers engaged in the Iraq war, as well as the attempt to assimilate back into life in the states. However, beneath the words is a story of monumental proportions. Powers, a veteran himself, forces us to see the terrible choices a soldier must make to survive, as well as to hold on to the humanity within himself. The story plays itself out in double time - the story of Bart and Murph in Al Tafar, Iraq and the story of a return home to Virginia. A breath-taking first time writer, I understand why Powers has his M.F.A. in poetry; he constructs a brutal, provoking story with shockingly beautiful sentences and language. As an English teacher, I was in awe; as a reader, he painted a picture I will never forget. The symbolism will strike you, and the story will, I suspect, sear itself into your soul as well. Whether you're a fan of war stories or not, I truly believe this is a book all Americans should read, so that when we see that headline once again, it will no longer have the banality of the news within it, but instead will move us to compassion for our soldiers who give their lives, and sometimes their spirit, for their country.