Saturday, August 22, 2009

Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick

Pub date, September 1, 2009

When Private Matt Duffy wakes up in an Iraq army hospital, he's honored with a Purple Heart. But one memory haunts him: the sight of an Iraqi boy as a bullet hits his chest. Matt fears he was somehow involved in his death--but a head injury keeps him from putting the pieces together. Eventually sent back into combat, Matt discovers the notion of guilt is very complicated indeed. (book blurb)

First, let me just say, I can't stand eBooks. I hate reading books on a screen. There. I tried it. No one can say I didn't. And I hated it. My eyes ended up in this weird Magic Eye swaying thing by the time I was done reading, and I only read five chapters at a time. I had afterimages of the white pages burned into my retinas. Ugh. Give me your normal, tree-killing paperback any day over one of these.

No, that mini-rant didn't come from the crevices of my buttocks. This book was an eGalley and the first book I've read on screen. And it will be the second to last. I have one more. And then NEVER. AGAIN.

Now onto the real review.

You know, I didn't know what to expect going into this. Is it going to be a glorification of war? Is it going to be starkly anti-war? Is it going to carry some kind of agenda? I really didn't know and the blurb is a little ambiguous. But when I started reading, I just didn't want to stop. But if I didn't limit my reading, my computer screen would have made me blind so I had to. If this were a tangible book, I could have easily read this in the span of two hours. Maybe less. And not just because it was a decent-sized font with wide margins. I wanted to find out what happened to Matt in that alley as much as he did.

This book doesn't glorify war. It isn't far to the left against it either. It's real. It's as real as a war story as I think a war story could get. There's one small anti-Bush mention. If I remember correctly, it was a poster with the joke, "W put the 'duh' in dumb." Something like that. Other than that, it could have very well been the journal of a soldier suffering from PTSD. There's no leaning. There's just doing your job and staying alive.

Matt is compelling from the first second of the story. Absolutely. You're kept sitting right on his shoulders. You know just as much about what's going on as he does and because of that you develop the same mad drive to figure out what happened in that alley that Matt does. You have to know. You need to know. You have to know why everything's different. Why your buddies are so strange. How the hell you ended up in the hospital to begin with. Why your superior officers are giving you memories that you're pretty convinced aren't your own.

This is a very cut and dry plot. Point A to Point B. Matt wakes up in the hospital to Matt finds out what happened in the alley. It really is that simple. But there's so much else going on that while the walk from A to B might be cut and dry, it doesn't mean you're not getting splashed on the way to B.

What this book also opens up is just what is real. What could be real. Are soldiers really returned to their units with TBIs, motor skill issues and physical impairments? Considering how hard up we are for soldiers over there, I wouldn't doubt it. Do commanding officers take liberties with situations in order to avoid real messes? Really don't doubt that.

This book is so reminiscent for me of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. There's no bias to one side or another, just the perception of the soldier. A ringing motif in Purple Heart is the little boy Ali being killed and how Matt remembers him dying. He remembers the boy flying up off his feet, floating, looking almost happy, and then his arms and legs start to flap and he goes down. It rings so close to home of Ted Lavender in Things. A running motif in that book is that Ted died by sunlight. That's how the MC remembers seeing it. The man stepped on a land mine and just before his body exploded all over the foliage, the sun's rays were coming in from behind him and he looked almost peaceful, as if the sunlight was gently putting him to rest. I just couldn't help but make comparisons between the two books.

The real kicker with this book for me was that this 18-year-old boy, BOY, because you are not a man at 18, I don't care how many of them think they are, is having to endure all of this death and destruction and confusion. Even Matt mentions the insanity of it all when he gets a letter from his girlfriend where she talks about such inconsequential things like tests in school while he reads it in a battlefield. The juxtaposition of those two elements bring the severity of Matt's situation into focus. Here's a boy whom we tell isn't old enough to handle the responsibility of drinking all the while dressing him in full body Kevlar and arming him with rocket launchers, hand grenades and assault rifles. What it going on here?

What I got from Purple Heart is that this isn't a book about war. Not about fighting it but about interpreting it. How is it seen through the eyes of a soldier? Through Matt's, thanks to his TBI (traumatic brain injury, in case you weren't sure what that meant), it's damn near indecipherable. And here he is with a gun in his hands.

I cried reading this because it can be true and it probably is. This book could very well be many soldiers' realities in war. If a book in which a soldier, our epitome of a man, collapses into a fetal position and weeps because three of his buddies just got blown up and he just had to sort through their belongings, doesn't make you cry, I don't know what will.

It's about perception and this is the perspective that the news doesn't give us and the soldiers themselves are wont to talk about. Read this book. Read it now. And while you're at it pick up The Things They Carried too. You'll see the similarities that I'm talking about. And I can guarantee you won't want to put either of them down.


April said...

The Things They Carried was an awesome book. I definately agree with a lot of your points, especially about the drinking (if you can take a bullet for you country, you should be allowed to have a drink), about people not being grown up at 18. So many excellent points. I definately want to read this book when it comes out.

Also about e-books, have you thought about getting an e-reader? I feel like they are easy on the eyes. The big downside is that they are expensive, and don't have the wonderful new book smell, ha ha.

Donna said...

I've half-heartedly considered it but I pretty strongly object to the digital format and I just can't justify spending $300 on something I'm so apprehensive about to begin with. I'll give it a few years and if it goes down to like $50, then maybe but right now, no dice.

I will say it would be a definite convenience for traveling and I have heard it's easy on the eyes but right now, I'll stick to the originals! :)

Steph Su said...

I was definitely thinking of The Things They Carried too when I read it. They both have that unapologetic, anti-glamorous way of approaching war. Love it.

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