Thursday, August 27, 2020

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: Heroes, Animal and Man Alike

In her last novel Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney got me to care deeply about an old woman wandering around New York City on New Year's Eve. I would not have thought it possible, but it worked! I loved that book — and am still a bit gobsmacked about the delta between my expectations going in and how much I liked it. 

With her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, she pulls off this trick again! I should know by now, fool me once, etc. I'll admit it: I picked up her new novel a bit skeptically. The novel intertwines the stories of a hero messenger pigeon and a hero soldier during a little-remembered episode of World War 1. The pigeon parts are, yes indeed, narrated by the pigeon. This has ALL kinds of disaster potential. But I'm here to tell you, it works. It really, actually works. 

So yes, Cher Ami is a pigeon — she's born in England, trained as a homing pigeon, and goes to war to help the Americans. Major Charles Whittlesey is the commander of what becomes known as the Lost Battalion — a battalion of American troops that advanced too far (they were too successful, actually) and got caught behind enemy lines. Cher Ami's and Major Whittlesey's paths cross during the course of the ramp-up to this battle and then the battle itself, both because Whittlesey is fascinated by the pigeon, but also because he harbors a bit of a crush on the pigeons' handler, a soldier named Cavanaugh. 

Cher Ami, for her part, winds up saving their lives. Despite being shot twice, and losing a leg and an eye, she's able to deliver a message to American troops to stop shelling. Their shells were landing on the Lost Battalion's position because the artillery folks didn't know they were so far ahead. 

Along the way, we get a fascinating biography of the contemplative, mercurial Whittlesey (like Cher Ami, who is in the Smithsonian currently, Major Whittlesey and his Lost Battalion are also real), including the mystery (that's not really a mystery) surrounding his death after the war. He's a warrior who often contemplates the insanity of war, specifically, and the peculiarities of humanity, generally. And he's a gay man frustrated he has to hide who he is, especially after he returns home as a war hero. 

Cher Ami is also very introspective — she (she is misidentified as a male, and therefore given a male name — a comment on how gender is a social construct, whether 1910s pigeon or contemporary human) wonders frequently about humans' relations to animals. Why do humans seem to put so much of their expertise in animal terms ("hawk eyes," "strong as a bull," "clever as a fox," etc.), yet see themselves as so superior to animals? All this is to say that the undercurrent of an entertaining, quickly paced novel is a staunchly anti-war, pro-animal philosophy that immensely enriches the reading experience. 

That aspect, along with these fascinating characters, and the elegance of Rooney's prose, make this an incredibly satisfying read. And again, surprising — though it shouldn't have been. I know people are going to hear "parts narrated by a messenger pigeon," and like me, be skeptical. Don't be. This is so good. 

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