by Sue Ann Rybak
Kevin Powers, author of this year’s “One Book, One Philadelphia” selection, will speak at Arcadia University, 450 S. Easton Rd. in Glenside, on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 7 p.m. The event, free and open to the public, will be in the Kuch Center Alumni Gymnasium and will include a book signing.
Powers’ book, “The Yellow Birds” (Little, Brown and Company, 2012), attempts to answer the haunting question that soldiers are repetitively asked upon returning home by civilians, “What was it like over there?”
“I didn’t know how to answer that question for them, and at that point, I didn’t know how to answer that question myself,” said Powers, who served as a machine gunner and combat engineer in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq. “Writing has always been a way for me to clarify my thinking on any subject.”
Powers, who joined the army at 17, said that despite having a family tradition of joining the military — both his grandfather and father had served — he never felt pressured to join the Army. Powers, 34, added that the decision to enlist was motivated by “a combination of youthful idealism and some practical considerations.”
He said that while the narrative of his book was invented, writing provided a way for him to explore the feelings he had about the war and the things he remembered. Powers, who was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, said he wanted people to see, “if only through a crack in the door,” the experiences of the war through one young man’s eyes.
The title of the novel is a reference to a military marching cadence: “A yellow bird With a yellow bill Was perched upon my window sill. I lured him in with a piece of bread, and then I smashed his f—ing head.” Powers said it resonated with him because it illustrates the lack of control soldiers have over their lives during a war.
The novel, which received the Pen/Hemingway Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Award, tells the story of 21-year-old Private John Bartle and 18-year-old Private Daniel Murph, who are preparing to deploy to the fictional city of Al Tafar in hopes of regaining control of the city. Before deploying, Bartle promises the mother of his friend, Murph, that he will keep him safe and “bring him home.”
While in Iraq, Bartle struggles to make sense of the war as his platoon engages in a bloody campaign to drive out the insurgents in one town only to return in the fall to battle them again. And the soldiers “throw candy to their children,” whom they know they will face a few years from now.
The story unfolds in a nonlinear narrative with scenes alternating between Bartle’s deployment in Iraq and his return home. The New York Times has called the novel “Extraordinary…A harrowing story about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield…Brilliantly observed and deeply affecting,” but a large portion of the story happens away from the battlefield.
Powers, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University and holds a MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, said it was important for him to address post traumatic stress disorder, especially given the fact that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
“I think one of the facets of an experience like this — and it’s really NOT exclusive to war — is that you have this huge amount of life experience compressed in a relatively short period of time,” he said, so you can’t process it immediately. Somebody who served one or two tours in his early 20s probably has a lifetime worth of fear, pain and anger, but they don’t have the life experience of responding to those types of emotions, so there is a short-circuiting effect.”
In the book, Powers paints a vivid picture of the anger and guilt returning veterans often feel. Even after Bartle is safely home and waiting to meet his mother, his thoughts are consumed by his fellow soldiers: “The ghosts of the dead filled the empty seats of every gate I passed: boys destroyed by mortars and rockets and bullets and I.E.D.s to the point when we tried to get them to a Medevac, the skin slid off or limbs barely held in place detached, and I thought that they were young and had girls at home or some dream that they thought would make their lives important.”
Bartle confesses that he wants “to sleep forever because there isn’t any making up for the killing.” He begins to feel like his “soul is gone” because “everybody is so happy to see you, the murderer, the f—ing accomplice.”
Bartle is sickened by the repetitive gestures of thanks. When a bartender at the airport refuses to take Bartle’s money, he says, “I didn’t want to smile and say thanks. Didn’t want to pretend I’d done anything except survive.”
For more information, call 215-572-2900. “The Yellow Birds” can be obtained through amazon.com in paperback for less than $10.