The winners, not the losers, write history. The authors of The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers) and The Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini) share a different perspective but, the intended messages are directed toward Americans. Powers wants us to see the reality of war; the side that the public doesn’t see. He feels that once a soldier has served his/her time, they are disposable. Hosseini wants us to see how the war in Iraq has affected his people. There is loss on both sides and the losses are felt over continents.
Powers writes that understanding where one is in the world, where our place is, is akin to taking a risk of drowning. Bartle tells his story from a cabin in the woods years after the war has ended. Bartle could not protect Murph from dying. He was soldier protecting other soldiers but tells his story from the viewpoint of an older brother. When he and Sterling toss Murph’s body into the water, they are doing it to protect his family. This story is not just about war, but also about the human suffering that comes from it when the war is over. It’s also a story about guilt and this is how Bartle tells his story – wracked with guilt. Bartle confronts now only what he’s done, but who he’s become when sitting in prison. That’s when he has to come to terms with the man he is.
Saboor also suffers from guilt, questioning the decision to let his children be adopted. We know he does this so they will have a better life. Both protagonists have done something that could be considered selfish. Did Saboor allow Abdullah and Pari to be adopted as a truly altruistic act or was it really because he did not want to be burdened raising them? Bartle disposes of Murph’s body to protect his mother from having to see him. Was this the act of a hero or a coward? Did he do this because he couldn’t live with the fact that he could not save him? In doing so, he deprived Murph’s mother of burying her son. If you just consider this, then what he did as selfish and self-serving?
Both men are faced with the consequences of modern wars: one in Iraq and one if Afghanistan. Their stories are less about the wars themselves than how the war affected them, their families and their futures. Hoissini wants to humanize his people. He wants the American audience to see a different perspective. Death is pervasive in each story, but the “enemy” is the enemy and even though their pain is real, they are still on the wrong side. There are countless refugees who are trying to escape the Middle East and even though the majority is probably innocent, they are considered the enemy.
Hoissini said of this book, “At the end of the day, my books touch on universal human themes. You do not need to be Afghan, or even know anything about Afghanistan, to connect with the stories. They are basically about the choices we make in life and the consequences of those choices” (Mark). Both authors tell their stories through intertwined relationships – soldiers – father – son and daughter. Both stories are also about love. Bartle loves Murph like a brother and Saboor loves his children so much he is willing to give them up for adoption for a better life.
Both Bartle and Saboor tell stories about a bond. Bartle’s bond with his fellow soldiers is so strong, he ends up going to prison to protect Murph’s mother. Abdullah and Pari have a very strong sibling bond, as they are, in a sense, orphans even though they get adopted but separately. The desire for them both to unite is thread that is evident throughout the rest of the book.
In both stories, the characters need each other to survive – whether on the battlefield or in life. One main difference is that Hoissini’s story is in a way like a spider web in that it spreads out and weaves in related and unrelated stories. There’s a stepmother and an uncle, who is the person who arranges the adoption. A second stepmother and two expats also play key roles in the development of the story.
Another theme in both stories is responsibility. Bartle takes on the responsibility of his fellow soldiers and Abdullah and Pari in essence, even though they get adopted, are responsible for themselves. Both Saboor and Bartle are damaged men and their pain is evident to readers. This is probably the most prominent connection between the two and the way they tell their stories. Both stories are also about friendship and loss. Bartle has lost not only his friend, but also his soul because of what he did and how he hid it for so many years. He had to live with that. Saboor lost his children and Abdullah and Pari their parents.
But in the end, these are stories of survival. Neither Saboor or Bartle or Murph or anyone for that matter, is prepared for war. Particularly in The Yellow Birds, the message of how war impacts those who never fought, in this case families and vets, is loud and clear. The battles that Bartle and Sterling face upon returning home are significant in representing a broader message about how vets are treated in this country. Even though they did something horrible and ended up paying a price, the guilt and depression of losing Murph is only part of the picture of what they witnessed at war.
Saboor and Bartle are not always sympathetic characters. However, the loss they suffered – the sacrifices they made – and the consequences of their decisions, give us a better understanding of which these two men are.
- Hosseini, Khaled. And the Mountains Echoed. New York: Riverhead Books. 2013. Print.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “Siblings Haunted by the Past and by Afghanistan’s Cycle of Misery.” New York Times. May 20, 2013. Web.
- Mark, Lois. “Khaled Hosseini on And the Mountains Echoed.” Huffington Post. 2013. Web.