In her third work of historical fiction, Kathleen Rooney takes her gift for inhabiting fascinating real-life figures in an exciting new direction. Both of the narrators in Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey were lauded for their heroic actions in World War I: Major Charles Whittlesey, leader of the famous “Lost Battalion,” and Cher Ami, a brave homing pigeon. As in her previous novels, 2012’s Robinson Alone and 2017’s bestselling Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Rooney provides historical context that is at once sweeping and specific, and her affinity for research is evident in details both lovely and harrowing.
Charming, contemplative Cher Ami speaks from a display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where her taxidermied body has been behind glass since her 1919 death. She reflects on her homing-pigeon training in Britain and her service in WWI, where she crossed paths with the major. Charles, an intelligent and kind man suffering from PTSD, harks back to his prewar life in New York City, where he had a law partnership and spent evenings visiting neighborhoods where he could meet other closeted gay men.
The two share their experiences of a 1918 battle in France’s Argonne Forest, where their battalion was trapped for five terrifying days. Cut off from supplies, surrounded by the enemy and, in a final insult, pelted with shells fired by fellow American troops, they were saved by Cher Ami's delivery of a crucial message. The press and the Army showered Charles and Cher Ami with honors and praise, but memories linger: the trenches, filled with danger and death; institutional incompetence that left the soldiers vulnerable; and the anguish of seeing feathered and human friends die.
Rooney makes a strong case for considering alternatives to war, pondering who we call heroes and why, and offering animals more empathy and respect. This is a creative, heartfelt, edifying reimagining of an important event in World War I history, as seen through the eyes of two extraordinary individuals.