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Purple Heart

Review

Purple Heart

It is quite a shock to be in a war zone one moment and to wake up in a hospital bed the next, barely able to move.

Matt Duffy, a private in the U.S. Army who is serving in the Iraq War, opens his eyes to a doctor poking his feet with a sharp object, testing his nervous system. He is having flashbacks from the attack, a strange sequence of events that seems to culminate in a child being shot and an explosion right next to him. Matt doesn't remember exactly what happened, just a series of bizarre details from the alley: a stray dog sifting through garbage, a candy wrapper caught on a coil of razor wire, and the resonation of a muezzin call for the mosque. Then a man speaks to him “on behalf of the President of the United States and the citizens of a grateful nation,” and he is awarded the Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat. The man goes on to tell Matt, “Your mission now, son, is to get better.” But such an order is easier said than done.

Matt has to relearn to walk and think. He has constant headaches and is medicated for them. One of his legs drags, a permanent injury. The Army doctor assesses him regularly to determine if his other injuries will be permanent as well. His buddy, Justin, comes to visit him in the hospital, and he tells Matt, “You're fine. You've got a black eye, but to tell you the truth,” Justin jokes, “it's actually an improvement.” Matt discovers that Justin, while under heavy fire, carried him out of the attack zone --- he saved Matt’s life. And Justin tells him what he remembers of the attack:

“We got separated...So we end up in an alley...and the bastards jump out of their car and disappear inside a house at the far end of the street. So we jump out of the Humvee and take off on foot. As soon as we do, we start taking fire...So we duck inside this house across the street...We find an upstairs window. We rip down the curtains and we see, across the street, at the other end, this one haji...leaning out the window to get a head on our location...And so I light him up. Bam! He goes down like a ton of bricks.” But Matt unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately) can’t remember any of the events that Justin recounts to him.

The effects of Matt's traumatic brain injury eventually begin to clear, but he still only remembers bits and pieces of the events surrounding the attack. He sees an Army psychiatrist who tells him that, as a coping mechanism, the mind often blocks out what it can't handle. After a few days in the hospital, Matt is escorted to the office of Lieutenant Colonel Fuchs, the same officer who awarded him the Purple Heart. Fuchs tells him that a child Matt knows was killed in the attack and that he will have to report on what happened in a criminal inquiry, an attempt to determine if Matt or members of his squad broke the Rules of Engagement. Under these rules, it is stated that civilian casualties come with a prison sentence if the situation could have been avoided. Fuchs warns Matt to weigh his words carefully and dismisses him, only to call him back shortly after to file his official report. 

PURPLE HEART is one of the best books I have read in years. I ended up reading it straight through in only a few hours. It's an incredible --- and yes, very sad --- story about the realities of war and its effects on real people. One of the most refreshing things about the book is that it doesn't hash out old politics or the news, and it doesn't seem to be written with either a strongly liberal or conservative mindset --- it's really just a story about people. To write the book, Patricia McCormick interviewed soldiers from across the United States, and the effects of her efforts are clear because the story feels like a realistic representation of a war zone. It's not surprising that McCormick is a former reporter or that she has been a National Book Award Finalist; she's quite a gifted writer who gets right to the heart of people.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith on October 18, 2011

Purple Heart
by Patricia McCormick

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Balzer + Bray
  • ISBN-10: 0061730904
  • ISBN-13: 9780061730900