In Kevin Powers’ powerful debut novel “The Yellow Birds,” narrator Pvt. Bartle faces the same struggles, feeling torn between civilian life and the person he was on the battlefield. Powers explores this duality by deftly moving between the battle in Al Tafar and the battle taking place in the narrator’s mind when he returns home to Virginia.
This juxtaposition of citizen and soldier makes for some heartbreaking passages. When Bartle sees an Iraqi citizen still alive on the streets, “my first instinct was to yell out to him, ‘You made it, buddy, keep going,’ … (but) I realized with a great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn’t stop until I was sure that he was dead.”
Bartle also struggles to protect his comrade, Pvt. Murphy. In the first few pages we learn that something happens to Murphy, but Powers holds the details back. As a result, we become even more invested in the story, and the pages fly by as we want to discover more about Murphy, Bartle, and the battles they faced.
It’s easy to become invested in this novel, as Powers beautifully pinpoints the complex emotions of war. The author served in Iraq and also has a masters in fine arts in poetry.
During battle, the soldiers shout “I’m up” to let their commanders know they’re safe. However, during a terrible firefight near the end of the novel “though there was no need, I shouted ‘I’m up’ and took off … ‘I’m moving,’ I screamed, sobbing with each step.”
War is hell. Powers makes that very clear. But there is also an element of hope in “The Yellow Birds.” While Bartle may struggle to share his story, he is able, despite everything, to keep moving forward.