An intrepid pigeon and a patient war hero are at the heart of this sweet and creative novel set during World War I.
Kathleen Rooney knew that writing half of her new book, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, from the point of view of a pigeon was a risk. But to the self-described animal lover, assuming a bird’s POV made perfect sense.
“A lot of people dislike and malign pigeons, but I never have,” Rooney says from her Chicago home, where she lives with her spouse, author Martin Seay. She rejects the idea of pigeons as rats with wings. “If you watch them, they’re such good fliers. . . . They’re really clean and smart. And rats aren’t that bad, either. They’re doing the best they can!”
Rooney, perhaps best known for her 2017 bestseller, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, says her interest in a feathered narrator was sparked by one of her students at DePaul University, where she is an English professor. “A student named Brian referenced Cher Ami in a poem and said to me, ‘Look it up!’ Of course, I did—and it blew my mind that this pigeon was so heroic and is stuffed and on display in the Smithsonian.”
Her researcher instincts activated, Rooney learned that Cher Ami, a British homing pigeon, helped save a group of American troops known as the “Lost Battalion” during a horrific, multiday World War I battle. The story of this amazing pigeon, the terrible conflict and the extraordinary man who commanded the beleaguered battalion—Major Charles Whittlesey, the other narrator of the novel—is strange, true and, in Rooney’s hands, altogether haunting and compelling.
“Once I learned about Charles, I was fascinated with him—how good he was at some things, yet how ill-suited he was to be a war hero,” Rooney says. In her reading about the era, she was intrigued by the cultural fixation on masculinity, a complicated issue that we continue to contemplate a hundred years later. “It was the early 20th century, people were moving from rural to urban, and there was a real fear of men getting soft,” Rooney explains. “Going to war was something you had to do if you wanted to be a man.”
In Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, Charles reflects on his happier prewar days in New York City, where he ran a law firm with a college classmate. Many an evening, he visited parts of the city where he could spend time with other closeted gay men and truly feel like himself. When it came time for battle, though, he focused on strategy and survival as he and his men, positioned in trenches in a section of the French Argonne Forest known as “the pocket,” found themselves cut off from supply lines, surrounded by enemy German troops and subjected to so-called friendly fire.
Carrier pigeons were the group’s only hope of contacting headquarters and getting the other Americans to stop dropping shells on them. Cher Ami flew through gunfire to deliver Charles’ message, which finally stopped the onslaught. (Incredibly, the note ended with “For heaven’s sake, stop it.”) She lost an eye and a leg, among other wounds, but was eventually able to hobble around on a tiny wooden prosthesis that the Army made for her. She lived another year before dying of her injuries in 1919, but in the novel she continues speaking to readers from her perch behind glass at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where she’s been since her death.
“In so much of the world, there are those who have an enjoyable life built on violence they don’t see. I hope it makes people think about that.”
Of visiting Cher Ami at the museum, Rooney says, “I found it profoundly moving. The conflicts killed 10 million solders, 10 million civilians, and untold animals were lost. The fact that she was so important that they saved her, when normally pigeons with those injuries would have just been discarded, shows what she did and how important it was.”
There’s an interesting lesson to be learned from Charles’ decisions in battle, too. “He was famous for something we’d describe as passive,” Rooney says. “Once they were in the pocket, he waited as hard as he could. I’m an impatient, active person. . . . His act was stillness, waiting, keeping everybody’s spirits up. The way he did that was amazing.”
Although Charles was able to save 194 members of his 500-man division, he couldn’t save everyone, and the experience took a heavy toll. He and his compatriots were given medals, held up as heroes and reminded of their wartime experiences daily, in a time when PTSD was only just beginning to be acknowledged.
“The only cure [for PTSD] is prevention,” Rooney says. “War has been around forever, but I think it can end. It breaks people, and the way to not break people is to not make them [go to war] in the first place.”
With Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, she hopes “to make people think about why we still do this. To what extent, as a civilization, are we complicit? In so much of the world, there are those who have an enjoyable life built on violence they don’t see. I hope it makes people think about that.”
Rooney also hopes the book, with its portrayal of the charming and brave Cher Ami, will boost appreciation of our furry and feathered friends. After all, she says, “What aerodynamically is really happening when a bird like that goes into the air? Pigeons are really miraculous animals, and I think if you pick any animal and go really deep into how does it work, no matter your belief system, it makes you aware of something outside yourself.”
Author photo by Beth Rooney