Word Has It: Wars against man, nature provide dramatic material


The Yellow Birds
In Iraq, in “The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers, Bartle and Murphy try to be good soldiers, but it’s difficult. Bartle finally decides he doesn’t always have to be glad someone dies because it means that he doesn’t. He decides nobody is special; that the bullet says, “To whom it may concern.”
He’s thoughtful enough to promise Murphy’s mother that he will bring him home safe. The sergeant, Sterling, beats him up for making such a stupid promise. Sterling later redeems himself by helping Bartle find Murphy.

The novel is somewhat confusing in structure with flashbacks. Just when I was used to Iraq, we’re in Virginia.
As moving as the war descriptions are, they are not as impressive as his homecoming, when he feels lost and helpless. If we ever wondered about post-traumatic stress, this sounds like it. He torments his mother, not confiding in her, not as kind as he had been with Murphy’s mother. Obviously, a feature of the stress is the desire to be alone and to confide in no one.

At the beginning, Bartle seems not to care about Murphy, not to want to care, not to want to be involved with anyone, but as the time goes on, they become buddies. When Murphy wanders off, apparently maddened by the senseless violence, Bartle looks for him.
Deathly sad, this novel is just one more that makes me wonder why we keep going to war.

Into Thin Air
Not another Mt. Everest book?! Yes, but different. “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer, is more recent, dealing with the 1996 disaster, from which only half the climbers returned. Each chapter is dated, starting with May 10, 1996, when the author was on the summit. When he wanted to descend, several climbers were in line waiting to ascend. It was painful for him because he was low on oxygen.

Chapter 2 takes him back to childhood, when he began to be excited about the mountain.

Outside Magazine hired him to report on the 1996 expedition. The shock was that so many groups were on the mountain at the same time. On the way up, they encountered bodies of climbers who had failed on earlier climbs.

They discovered that many people came because they could afford to, but they were ignorant and unprepared, with no experience. They didn’t die from rockfalls, avalanches, or blizzards, but from altitude sickness, exhaustion, or climbing too slowly. Most had guides, but the guides were also inexperienced.

When the author returned home, he felt obliged to write the report immediately. But he received many letters blaming him for the deaths. One Sherpa wrote that he thinks his homeland is cursed. Krakauer wrote that he never meant to harm anyone, but to tell what happened as accurately and honestly as possible, in a sensitive and respectful manner.

I believe most strongly that this story needed to be told.

Shadow on the Mountain
Now another war story, but not in Japan, in Europe, in this month’s Young Adult Book, “Shadow on the Mountain,” by Margi Preus. Espen is a 14-year-old in conquered Norway, who wants to be a spy and succeeds because he is a speedy enough skier to be a courier.

Unfortunately his best friend, Kjell, fraternizes with the Nazis, believing their promise of a better life for everyone. The most ambitious fraternizer is Aksel, who spies on his own classmates. The Nazis dissolve the Boy Scouts and take over the soccer team. The boys are so disgusted that they insist on singing the forbidden national anthem.

Eventually school is even canceled.

Espen’s sister Ingrid is daring, too, stealing food to take to prisoners of war. Aksel guesses that she and her brother are spies and prepares to arrest him at home, but Espen’s friends protect him and keep him from going home to be caught.