The Yellow Birds Discussion Journal

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, was not easy to read – and not just because of the subject matter. It is definitely not a book to read late at night, when you are tired and falling asleep. I re-read pages, sometimes just trying to understand content, but other times just to savor the concept or imagery. “Where little drifts of snow sketched the December wind.” “When I got fed up with nothing.” “Empathy is an imaginative act.”YellowBirdsCover

I was not surprised at all that our first responder emphatically shared that she hated it – and several members agreed. Several had not finished the book, and one member had nearly vomited trying to read it. I had skimmed through many of the hardest scenes, but members were often able to clarify what happened, even quickly find the necessary passages. One member liked the book. She found the writing beautiful, and several others then agreed. Some of us would want to have our children’s bodies returned to us, whatever the condition.  Others adamantly would not. All seemed to agree that Bartle should not have been imprisoned for his part. Fifteen people at our meeting – the same yet different.

We discussed how family members and friends never talk about what happened during their service and how different our wars have been.  The world wars were fought to fight great evil and veterans are generally admired.  The Vietnam and Korean war veterans met disdain at home; their wars seemed lost and purposeless to those at home.  Veterans of our current wars are often met with gratitude and thanks for their service, even though we may disparage the war itself. Yet the author shared his own sense that in fighting a senseless and purposeless war, he was ashamed and uncomfortable with the gratitude. “It was a sign and we knew what it meant, that hours had passed, that we had drawn nearer to our purpose, which was as vague and foreign as the indistinguishable dawns and dusks with which it came.”

The Yellow Birds was a National Book Award finalist. But the author is primarily a poet, and as we discussed whether his writing was any good, I read from an interview in which Kevin Powers was asked about “the deeply lyrical quality” of his prose. He responded in part: “In trying to demonstrate Bartle’s mental state, I felt very strongly that the language would have to be prominent. Language is, in its essence, a set of noises and signs that represent what is happening inside our heads.” (Kindle Version)*

One member mentioned that to truly understand the author’s intent, she would have to read it again and again.  Another member said he would like to read it, now that we had discussed it. But would we? Could we? Does our understanding make a difference? Do we have any power? One member said that we should give the book to our politicians to read.

Even then, the author often describes rather than tells, and the reader’s perception is everything.  I read aloud a passage that had moved me, “I knew that at least a few of the stars were probably gone already, collapsed into nothing. I felt like I was looking at a lie.” One member quickly responded, “Why a lie. History.”

Our next book is more main stream, the sixth in a mystery series that includes dogs. After The Yellow Birds, I think we are all ready for something lighter. I seldom read books before I select them. I have read reviews, looked at lists, thought about themes, diversity, and content. If I read them first, I’d be hard pressed to choose a book I didn’t like, so we’d be limited. As one member commented, “We’re all in this together!” Thanks for joining the discussion.

*A conversation with Kevin Powers and Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles Bookshop, London

All book and interview quotations taken from the electronic version of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • All’s Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  • Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Wilfred Owen (Poems by)
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay (Short Stories – 2014 National Book Award Winner)
  • Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel (2013 Non-Fiction)

We discussed a few more, but I didn’t get the names. Most of these are from the First World War. If you have additions, please comment!

2 thoughts on “The Yellow Birds Discussion Journal

  1. Like some members of your group, I wanted to read this book but had to stop, fairly certain that reading would be emotionally painful, increasingly so. Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Masters Son. elicited the same reaction, but my desire to know about the North Korean culture drew me on. Since the work was fiction, I tried to dismiss some of the horrors as being impossible, but they rang too true. Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for that book, and I’m glad I read it. It created a sympathy in me that I hadn’t felt before, and a great appreciation for what I have. Sometimes it takes boldness just to read.

  2. Over a year from the book club’s reading of this work, I finally read it and am very glad I did. It was a tough read if I thought about what was happening, but if I gave in to the writer’s voice (the narrator’s voice, really), I was cushioned and amble to contue. The beautiful prose style puts at a bearable distance the violence and pain attending a terrible war. The narrator seems himself removed from the situation—observing the events and setting and people without rising tension or shock in his voice or attitude. The tension is, however, unrelenting. It rises from the narrator’s equal attention to peripheral details and to crucial events—a blatant avoidance of the horror, displacing it with a poet’s eye for the surrounding world. Narrative shifts from war to stateside, from past to closer present, forecast that something has happened, but the revelation comes slowly. The war is ever present and the narrator’s eye is the same in battle or at home. Gradually, that separation of self from the outside reality comes to be a major truth of the work. Only by this kind of separation could any normal human survive the constant emotional extreme of a brutal world without going mad. The separation may itself be a kind of madness, one that war veterans may recover from only slowly, if ever, and never totally.

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