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Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, Kathleen Rooney

September 5, 2020

IMG_4181I’ve been reading children’s books and books narrated by animals after Ann convinced me to read Katherine Applegate’s fabulous The One and Only Ivan and Rohan convinced me to read Kathleen Rooney’s novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. I read Catherine Fisher’s The Snow-Walker Trilogy (also recommended by Ann at Cafe Society). I read Noel Streatfeild’s The Bell Family (because I didn’t remember reading it when I checked out every book by Streatfeild in the public library of the town where I grew up). I read Wishing for Tomorrow by Hilary McKay, which is a pretty good sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess.

Although Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is narrated by Cher Ami, a pigeon, in chapters alternating with Major Whittlesey, a human, it is not a children’s book. It’s about world war one, and what war does to animals and people. Based on the story of a real homing pigeon and a real army officer, the novel imagines what they were thinking at several points along the journey that made them famous.

Each chapter starts out the same way, whether it’s told by the pigeon (Cher Ami gets her turn first) or the man. The repetition grounds the reader, like at the beginning of Chapter 9, when Cher Ami says “After our inculcation into the army tradition of hurry-up-and-wait, the rapidity of the orders and the intensity of the bloodshed in late September and early October were bewildering. So many of my bird comrades had been killed by then…” and Whittlesey echoes that first sentence in Chapter 10, continuing with “we’d lost so many officers….”

Cher Ami and Whittlesey, celebrated war heroes, share a sense of humility about the heroism of any one pigeon or person. As Cher Ami puts it “there were so many of us, and so many of us could be called heroic.” As Whittlesey remarks, “in a contest against passion, truth always makes a poor showing.” With individual perspectives like these the novel offers contemporary applicability.

It also offers a nice moment for those of us working at liberal arts colleges when, as an undergraduate, Whittlesey writes that the purpose of a college education is “learning to judge correctly, to think clearly, to see and to know the truth, and to attain the faculty of pure delight in the beautiful.” Although in the next sentence Rooney has Whittlesey undercut that idealism with a reference to utility.

Rooney doesn’t have to contort her characters or her subject very much to make the conceit that Cher Ami is speaking work in the novel. At only one point did I notice awkwardness, and that was a long paragraph about how the pigeon was able to speak to a horse:

“The reader may be forgiven for wondering how animals of different species—indeed of different genera, families, orders, and classes—are able to communicate, whereas humans’ speech is often entirely unintelligible to others of their kind who reside only a sea’s or a mountain range’s breadth away. The answer is that I don’t know. I might also respectfully add that we animals find it very odd that humans have such trouble understanding one another, and add further that we suspect this might be due to their rather impoverished notions of what qualifies as language.”

There are captivating little stories within the larger narrative, even momentary ones, like when an American Army Division lands near Liverpool and one of the men is greeted by “an old Scouser woman” who asks him “Did ye come over to die?” When he replies “not if I can help it, lady” we learn that her “eyes went wide, abashed. ‘No, no!’ she said. ‘What I mean is, did ye just arrive?’”

I also liked the story of how Cher Ami met a pigeon named President Wilson:

“’President Wilson’s the name,’ he said, puffing his oil-black breast like a head of state.‘You’re American?’ I asked. I had never met an American—man or bird—and was intrigued to meet a representative of what was to be our side.

‘No, French,’ he said. ‘It’s just a patriotic moniker. And you?’

‘Cher Ami,’ I said. ‘And this is my brother, Thomas Hardy. We’re English.

‘An English bird with a French name here to fly for the Americans,’ said President Wilson. ‘And your name is masculine, but you’re a hen, unless I miss my guess. Mon Dieu, life in wartime!’”

The pigeon doesn’t belabor the point–one that’s been made with plays and films like War Horse–but does mention that “while I preferred to think of us as the humans’ partners and collaborators…we were also their property and their tools.”

The man doesn’t belabor the point–one that’s been made in every war movie, especially about WWI and WWII–that war is hell, but it does phrase it in a way that makes it new: “Human language inevitably organizes as it communicates, and thus the hell of the Pocket sounds tidy when I describe it. It wasn’t. Events that my account sets down straight-edged were jagged as they happened.”

The dual narrative technique ignores the idea that animals might have their own ways of seeing the world. As Rohan points out, the novel assumes “that the best way to earn our respect for animals is to depict them as essentially human-like.” But as she also points out, the novel works to make the horrors of trench warfare freshly horrific again, and that is no easy feat.

Have you read any children’s books lately? Did you ever wish for a sequel to A Little Princess?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2020 9:08 pm

    I am always reading a middle-grade book these days, as my son is nine and still wants to read together before bed. I cherish it because I know it may not be the case in a couple of years. But for now it is very sweet. Right now we’re reading a fantasy adventure called The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles. It involves time travel and freezing time!

    • September 5, 2020 9:44 pm

      That is a very sweet time. The Last Last-day-of-Summer sounds like a fun book, and like the Ali Smith book I just finished, about this season!

  2. September 6, 2020 7:36 am

    I’m scared to read the sequel to A Little Princess because I find modern sequels usually disappointing and even traumatic (i’m still scarred by that Five Children on the Western Front experience, to speak of war stories). You think McKay did an okay job?

    At the moment I’ve taken refuge in Eva Ibbotson who is perfect escape reading for me.

    • September 6, 2020 8:43 am

      I think McKay did a good job because she made the sequel revolve around Ermengarde, and she’s worth knowing. We also find out a little more about the other girls and the Miss Minchins.

  3. September 6, 2020 1:07 pm

    I haven’t read any children’s books recently, but The Little Princess was my favorite book for a while as a child. I don’t remember wishing for a sequel but I’m sure I would have read it if I could have. I remember my father (who used to take us to the library) asking exasperatedly if I was really going to “read that AGAIN?”. Eventually he persuaded me to try Watership Down as a young teen and I loved it. I’m still not much of a fan of animal books, but I’ve read and liked a few adult books with parts narrated by dogs (The Art of Racing in the Rain, Hounded, and Dog On It). As an adult, I liked the Redwall books by Brian Jacques on audio, although I never finished the series.

    • September 6, 2020 2:29 pm

      The Redwall books are narrated by a mouse, at least the first one, but as my daughter pointed out when we were talking about animal books, Redwall is related to animal fables, in which the animals have human characteristics. Cher Ami has some human characteristics but isn’t just a device to stand for a certain kind of human, like the pigs in Animal Farm.
      You’ve got to wonder why some parents were exasperated by kids who read books over and over. Mine did not, but they did give me a lot of the “always has her nose in a book” noise, and they were both college profs themselves.

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