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Friday, September 18, 2009

Purple Heart Definitely Engrossing, Definitely Affecting, But Definitely Not For Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I avoid books about war as a general rule. Although they can be both exciting and inspiring, they're also usually violent, profane, gory and depressing. If I want that, I can watch CNN or read the newspaper (two things I rarely do). Still, the premise of Patricia McCormick's Purple Heart intrigued me: Private Matt Duffy wakes up after a mind-jarring encounter with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), feeling confused and anxious. Although he's been awarded with a Purple Heart, he knows he's not a hero. He's too shaken up to make any sense of them, but his mind keeps flashing images of a terrified Iraqi boy. Matt recognizes the urchin, a street kid who trailed the American soldiers begging for candy - What happened to the kid? Why does he look so scared? Was Matt somehow responsible for his death?

As Matt recovers in an Army hospital situated in Iraq's Green Zone, he tries to sort out what happened to him. He can't find the truth and no one else seems willing to talk about it, not his psychiatrist, not his buddy Justin, and definitely not the brass, who seem to want the incident swept under the rug ASAP. But, Matt's haunted by the boy's face. What happened to the child? Could he have murdered a civilian, a kid, no less? The questions still plague Matt as he's sent back out on patrol. Memories come fast and furious, making him jump at every sound, spook at every Iraqi he sees, but also allowing clarity. Can he finally figure out the truth? Can deadly mistakes made in the battlefield ever be pardoned? Most importantly, will Matt ever be the same - in his head or in his heart?

Even though Purple Heart is geared toward young adults, it's got the same grittiness as all war novels. It's gory, it's filled with profanity, it's violent and it's depressing. It's affecting, for sure, but just too bleak for me. The story does end on a hopeful note, although it's a case of too little too late. Teen boys, in particular, should find this book fascinating. It's a quick read about tough, cynical soldiers fighting a bitter war against Iraq and ultimately, themselves. It's about right and wrong and the grey areas in between. It thumbs its nose at authority, blasting military leaders for turning a blind eye to civilian suffering. Right up a teen boy's alley. It's definitely engrossing, definitely affecting, but definitely not for me.

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence and some sexual innuendo


  1. Young adult novels are surprisingly gritty these days -- they definitely delve into all aspects of life, including the dark and disturbing. Remember when Judy Blume's books were considered highly controversial? :-) This book sounds like something I'd like, though it sounds disturbing. Thanks for the honest, balanced review.

  2. War is not pretty. I don't want it to be! Maybe then we can be serious about it and not feel the proclivity to rush in where angels fear to tread. I do believe in defending our freedoms and that of others but I worry about the police states we are administering. (wow, where did that soapbox come from?!?!? sorry!) Although the press may think we can gussy war up, the reality is that people suffer and lives are lost in more ways that one and on both sides. Kudos to you for stretching yourself by reading this book. I love how you score a great review that uncovers the ying and the yang of a book! I come away from your posts well equipped... Thanks for your candor and panache. Authors should be pleased with both your praise and frankness. I know I am. Keep it up!

  3. Sorry you didn't like this one more. I think that it will appeal to teen boys a lot. Although like you, I was surprised at how they wanted to turn a blind eye to Duffy's actions. I wonder how often that really happens?

  4. I am constantly surprised at how "gritty" YA novels are getting. Sometimes I can handle it, sometimes I can't. I agree with Gaye that we shouldn't "gussy war up" - it isn't pretty, we shouldn't pretend it is. I guess that's why I usually avoid war books - there's no way to write an authentic one without using violence and such. It was just so bleak and so depressing...too much for me.

    I'm not saying it isn't a good book. I think teenage boys, especially, will gravitate toward it. I also don't feel like it was a waste of my time. It's actually a very fast read, and very affecting - just too bleak.

    I'm sure McCormick's SOLD is this way, too, but I still want to read it.


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