Tim O’Brien: “And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”
Add The Yellow Birds to the list of “true” war stories. The ones, anyway, that ring true. Unless you were there, do you know? Does seeing “Lone Survivor” (different country, I know) help you know? Did “Platoon” help us know? Did Red Badge of Courage? Maybe, yes. I guess we hope it helps.
Kevin Powers’ tale of two privates in Iraq is spare, simple, poetic, harrowing, brutal, concise, lean, clean and powerful. “The Yellow Birds” carries gravity too, like the collective soldiers in O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” It belongs with A Rumor of War (Caputo), Matterhorn (Marlantis), and Dispatches (Herr).
The Yellow Birds keeps a sober, reflective view on how the war impacts these two privates, the 21-year-old Private John Bartle and 18-year-old Private Daniel Murphy. “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” is the opening line and that bit of clear-eyed distance never wavers. Private Bartle is the narrator and we watch as the war transforms them both in different ways.
The writing is crisp, cool and understated. “The smoke rose and began to disappear I watched the old woman bleed on the side of the road. The dust blew in languid waves and began to swirl slightly. We heard shots again. Beyond a building a small girl with auburn curls and a tattered sundress stepped out toward the old woman. Errant bullets from other positions kicked up dust around her in dry blooms.”
Powers finds beauty in restraint, accuracy—and simplicity. “In the morning, before first light, we dragged ourselves over the sides of the company’s deuce-and-and-a-half trucks and convoyed to the range. The snow had changed to rain overnight and we pulled our hoods over our helmets as far as we could. The rain was cold, percussive. The drops slid down the backs of our blouses and jackets, each one seemingly on the cusp of freezing. No one talked.”
Powers, who went to Iraq at 17 and later earned an MFA at University of Texas at Austin (he’s also a Michener Fellow in Poetry), said he wanted to write the novel to capture to demonstrate Bartle’s “perpetual, unbearable sense of awe and wonder.”
The Yellow Birds is about war—and fear, love and memory, too.