Friday, November 9, 2012

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: Powerful Beginnings in Fiction

Basic story ingredients, introduced in the first paragraphs and chapters, include the setting, characters, and conflict. Into those, an author tosses his own particular yeast--his style--to cook a book. Logically, then, the first words are crucial to a full understanding of the book about to unfold. Kevin Powers’ first novel, The Yellow Birds, a 2012 National Book Award finalist in fiction, illustrates the power in beginnings very well.

            The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
            Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.

Like Tana French, the writer featured last week, Powers makes use of alliteration, a figurative device easily identified. The initial letter that weaves throughout the opening paragraph is w, a letter that we speak by exhaling a wee sigh, a breath of air before pursing our lips to give that breath shape. Adding an h just behind the w embellishes the sigh. As a result, the letter w and letters wh effectively re-create or enhance the forlorn wind on those windswept paths. The wind is a natural phenomenon that seems to underscore loneliness and alienation within a human heart as the men move through the terrain of war. Powers deliberately crafts a paragraph that introduces the setting and its atmospheric tone by picking and choosing from many word options available to him.

Other repeated letters in the first paragraph make those words more emphatic, the setting more alive and vivid. In spring, with greening grass upon the hills, the men patrol, making paths like pioneers once did, and as they do, their fatigue presses upon them. The weight of their work contrasts with the energy and lighthearted renewal often associated with spring. Clipped, staccato sounds made with the letter p enhances the heavy effect of men at war.

Most apparent and most significant in the first two paragraphs is war personified as a character, the narrator’s antagonist, his villain, bred and spread by another natural force, fire. War opposes the narrator, its function to kill the patrol with an apparent biological imperative like animals with wide open eyes, white in the dark.

In the second paragraph, Powers explains more about the setting and about the character, war. It brings oppressive, blinding heat during the summer. Worse, it is the most frightening sort of antagonist, one without motives or logic. Neither cause nor effect, good or evil moves war. It takes randomly because it is merely an opportunist, taking those who have families and those who do not, some who have great character and others who have none. War is an equal opportunity killer; thus, anyone and everyone may die.

With only 245 words, Powers has declared war upon our hearts by revealing how ruthless war is. He invented a chilling character, one that is amoral and unsympathetic to the men on patrol. War lives to kill; killing is its function and purpose.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. You will not regret it.

Writing Challenge:

Using no more than 250 words, create peace as a character and setting.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Good practice--in other words, good usage--requires that we learn to make words speak to words. Alliteration is one method.

Review your 250-word passage from the challenge above. Revise to move words, change words, and effectively choose words that speak to other words as Powers did.