Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Yellow Birds:
1. The Army tells the soldiers that death is the "great unifier," that it brings people "closer together than any other activity on earth." But Bartle thinks the more common belief among soldiers is that "if you die, it becomes more likely that I will not." What are your thoughts on either philosophy of death. Is the concept of death in civilian life different from war? Is death in war simply a matter of numbers, lacking any significance?
2. What do you make of the troops killing the single man, alone in front of a wall, and the older couple in the car (pg. 20-22). Why are they summarily killed? Is their killing an inevitability of war? Is the killing justified in wartime?
3. Birds, the orchard, and hyacinths are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book. What might their significance be? Dust and footprints are also referred to frequently. Why? What is their thematic significance—any ideas?
4. Talk about the colonel who addresses the troops while in front of the cameras. Do you think his concern for the troops is genuine...or is he preening before the media? He tells the soldiers that some will not return. Why does he tell them that? Should he have done so? What does Bartle think of the colonel's admission (pg. 87)?
5. The colonel also tells the troops that in the coming battle "you may not do anything more important in your life" (pg. 89). How do Murph and Bartle respond to that statement? Whose perspective do you agree with?
6. What do you think of Sterling? What does Bartle think of him? Does your opinion of Sterling change? Does Bartle's? What happens to Sterling...and why?
7. Why do U.S. troops end up fighting three times, in three years, for Al Tafar?
8. Bartle says that "we were unaware of even our own savagery now: the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence." What do you make of that statement?
9. Murph seems to give up. What precipitates his loss of will? Does it start with his girlfriend's letter telling him she has found someone else? Bartle tortures himself that he should have been able to pinpoint the moment. To what degree is Bartle responsible for Murph?
10. What is Murph's attraction to the young female medic? Why does he sit and watch her? Even Bartle finds her compelling—why? What does she mean to both of them?
11. SPOILER ALERT: Why does Bartle not want to follow standard procedures with regard to Murph's body? Is the decision the right one? Is it—was it—fair to deprive Murph's mother of the return of her son's body? What about the old hermit with the mule—why does Sterling shoot him?
12. What is the significance of the title, The Yellow Birds? Consider the canaries from the coal mines that Murph describes to Bartle (pg. 139). What about them...and why might the book be named after them? What about all the other mentions of birds throughout the book (see Question 3)?
13. SPOILER ALERT: The following aren't questions but observations: note Bartle's mention of Murph's eyes, as early as page 7, which have already "fallen farther into his sockets." Consider how that represents a foreshadowing of his death. Also note the parallel between Bartle's floating in the James River once he's back home and the disposal of Murph's body into the Tigris.
14. On the plane home, Bartle feels he has "left the better portion" of himself behind. What does he mean? By the time he arrives in Richmond, he has lost his way—and his will—as if he had "vanished into thin air." How would you describe his condition? Is his behavior typical of returning vets?
15. SPOILER ALERT: We aren't told how Bartle's trial, or court martial, plays out, exactly what he is charged with. How—or why—do you think he ends up in prison? What is he guilty of? Is he guilty?
16. What do you think the letter to Murph's mother says? She comes to visit Bartle at Fort Knox. Why—what does she want? Bartle says she offers him no forgiveness, yet he is glad she came. Would you have visited Bartle under the circumstances.
17. Bartle's own mother has no ability to understand her son when he returns. Is there any way that any of us can grasp what a soldier's experience in battle is like? How are we ever to integrate them back into society? How are we to heal them? Can they be healed?
18. What is Bartle's emotional state by the end of the novel? Has healing occurred? What might the future hold for him? Why does the book end with Bartle's vision of Murph's floating remains?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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Writer Kevin Powers enlisted in the army at age 17 and served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He now lives in Austin, Texas, where he's been studying poetry at the University of Texas. And he's just published his first book, a novel called "The Yellow Birds." Alan Cheuse has our review.
Strangely, The Yellow Birds has a certain elegance. You can see that the words have been carefully chosen. The book is both lyrical and distressing.