The Purple Heart
by Patricia McCormick
Set in Iraq during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, this novel follows soldier Private Matt Duffy as he awakens in a hospital room and receives the Purple Heart for an event he cannot fully remember.
If you have never read author Patricia McCormick before, then you have been missing out. Her work is powerful, and while it usually tackles horrific or traumatic experiences from around the world (Sold – one of my students’ favorites - is about a girl sold into the sex slave industry of Southeastern Asian by her stepfather), it is written with compassion and an often shocking, but gripping and enlightening candor. The Purple Heart, a finalist for the National Book Award, is no exception.
McCormick enfolds us in the realities of war. Articles and news clips of both Iraq and Afghanistan have been a daily part of our lives for almost a decade now, but how many of us stop and think about the experience and sacrifice of the soldier? It is easy to scan through an article and set it aside because the reality seems to exist in a place so far away. If it doesn’t affect our daily lives, we can’t take the time to think and feel about each tragedy.
The Purple Heart brings the soldier’s story to life. It awakens us from our cloud of avoidance or denial to show us who is fighting for our freedom and helps us to understand the demons he may bring home with him. “I hate it. And I love it,” one of Private Duffy’s comrades comments about the war. The novel focuses on the psychological complexity involved in fighting a war and the gray area between good and bad, love and hate, ally and enemy.
Private Matt Duffy is haunted by fractured memories of the events leading up to the explosion (IED) that led to his hospitalization for TBI (traumatic brain injury). He remembers only that a young Iraqi boy he had befriended was killed in gunfire and he fears that he is the person who killed Ali. He remains in the hospital for what seems to be a surprisingly short amount of time considering his injury and is released, almost unwillingly, by his doctor to return to duty. It is a chilling example of the military’s need to press on in battle although its soldiers may not be completely healed, mentally or physically. What is also shocking is his superiors’ avoidance of learning the truth behind the death of the boy, sweeping it under the rug - so to speak - in order to continue the fight. It exemplifies the theme that in war, there are no clear-cut answers. Things are never black or white. The officials understand this, but it is Private Duffy’s turn to learn.
McCormick writes with clarity and honesty, fully creating characters and a war that is realistic. The soldiers are loud, crude, and heartbreakingly loyal and the war is brutal, unforgiving, and complicated. Matt’s journey to understanding is filled with sorrow and betrayal. It is captivating and tragic.
I recently reviewed another book about the war and its effect on the soldier’s family (The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt). This novel, The Purple Heart, encompasses the experience of the soldier. Both are excellent books from different perspectives.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in a realistic account of a young soldier’s tour of duty. It is well researched by Patricia McCormick, as she traveled the country speaking with parents of soldiers and veterans of the war. As one can expect from a novel about war, it depicts violence and contains profanity, but it would be a wonderful book for a parent to read and discuss with their child (recommended for older adolescents). I encourage parents to do this with the controversial books their children might read. What wonderful teaching and learning opportunities!