The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers
(Little, Brown, and Company, September 2012)

“So, what drew you to this novel?” asks my roommate.

“Well, you see, when I worked for the state, there was this break room with a little communal library of books—most of them were Harlequin romances—bodice-rippers, copies of the National Enquirer, and a couple literary magazines…and then there was this book.”

I’m a writer, and my genre is fantasy; I don’t typically read war novels. But as an author, I know how important that first line of a book is, and how critical it is, to draw a reader in as quickly as possible. So when I read that first line, “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” I was drawn in by the elegant simplicity of it.

The war could have tried to kill the narrator and his compatriots at any time, presumably, but with a consciousness all its own and a malicious yearning in its heart, it tried to kill them in the spring, as though to add insult to injury, by slaying them during the most beautiful season of the year.

The book was The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.


Kevin Powers uses a masterful first line to grab the reader and, all at once, call attention to the struggle between war and the human heart itself. The reader sympathizes with Private Bartle in his lonely wanderings, as he wishes he could somehow escape the war and all its horrifying, spring-killing mechanisms; that he could wriggle away, like a tiny fish caught in a big net.

I was a college student at Sacramento State University when the Iraq war began, and an organizer of college protest activities against it, so for me, this novel is, in many ways, a vindication of what we stood for, all those years ago.

Faulkner once famously noted that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. Throughout this novel, our narrator is battling with his own heart, and this is what gives it poignancy. He wants to remember. He wants to forget. This is the human heart in turmoil. He knows, on a subconscious level, that war and spring should not exist simultaneously in his heart or in the world, and he responds by taking us through the cycle of sorrow/disgust/ambivalence/anger/depression that follows him through the novel. We see him introduced to a character who describes a field of hyacinths.

“Mrs. Al-Sharifi used to plant her hyacinth in this field.” He spread his hands out wide and moved his arms in a sweeping motion that reminded me of a convocation.

Murph reached for the cuff of Malik’s pressed shirt. “Careful, big guy. You’re gonna get silhouetted.”

“She was this crazy old widow.” He had his hands on his hips. His eyes were glazed over with exhaustion.

“The women in the neighborhood were so jealous of those flowers.” Malik laughed. “They accused her of using magic to make them grow the way they did.” He paused then, and put his hands on the dried mud wall we’d been leaning against. “They were burned up in the battle last fall. She did not try to replant them this year,” he finished brusquely.

Malik is then shot down, and our narrator reflects that he would like to believe that he would have stopped and noticed the flowers; but this is, after all, a war.

There is a striking difference between the personal and the political spheres that Powers gives voice to. He sets up a dichotomy between the beauty of spring, with its symbolic flowers (in this case, hyacinths), and the ugliness of war. That dichotomy is enhanced through the writer’s artful use of prose.

I’ll never forget the way my stepfather told me about war. “I’m sorry,” he said to me, as I got out of his truck. He had tears streaming down his eyes. It was my 18th birthday, and we’d gotten to talking. When my stepfather turned 18, he told me he was getting drunk in a field by himself, full of sorrow, because his brother was going off to fight in Vietnam. He showed me that although people talk about war all the time, there is a very real, personal cost to the wars we fight overseas.

Again I say, I don’t usually read war novels, but this one’s worth reading through several times because it takes that concept—“war,” that so many politicians talk about like it’s nothing—and infuses it with such poignant reality that the truth of it resounds to the depths of the soul.

Would you have stopped and noticed the hyacinths if you saw them?

One of the main events of the novel is that Private Bartle’s friend Murph dies. This drives home the brutality of warfare, and Bartle seems forever changed by this heartbreaking experience, particularly since prior to battle, Bartle had told Murph that everything would be okay. Even worse is that he promised Murph’s mother that he’d protect him and bring him home. That, of course, is a promise that Bartle is destined not to be able to keep, as he and his fellow soldiers find Murph’s body (or what’s left of it) lying in a patch of “lifeless hyacinth.”

Bartle is the protagonist of this postmodern novel, stuck in an existential crisis, and he does not bother to disguise his disgust when it comes to the war and what it’s done to him. What’s also interesting is that Bartle is a character that readers can relate to, as he explains that “nothing is more isolating than having a particular history.” If you live long enough in the world, you’re bound to eventually have a particular history that is isolating.

Bartle (our narrator) states that, “At some point along the way, I stopped believing in significance.” However, deep down, he seems to want to believe in the idea of a higher purpose. This is shown when he states, “We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams.” This could be what led him into military service in the first place, only to find it an empty promise, just like the one he made to Murph’s mother.

In conclusion, I love this book for its unflinching honesty in examining the main character’s deep existential crisis. His revelations are interesting and thought-provoking, such as when he states that “the world makes liars of us all.”

Click here to buy The Yellow Birds.