Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey

by Kathleen Rooney


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"Both heartbreaking and sharply funny...Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is brilliant and surprising at every turn."—Rebecca Makkai, Pulitzer finalist for The Great Believers

A heart-tugging and gorgeously written novel based on the incredible true story of a WWI messenger pigeon and the soldiers whose lives she forever altered, from the author of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.

From the green countryside of England and the gray canyons of Wall Street come two unlikely heroes: one a pigeon and the other a soldier. Answering the call to serve in the war to end all wars, neither Cher Ami, the messenger bird, nor Charles Whittlesey, the army officer, can anticipate how their lives will briefly intersect in a chaotic battle in the forests of France, where their wills will be tested, their fates will be shaped, and their lives will emerge forever altered.

A saga of hope and duty, love and endurance, as well as the claustrophobia of fame, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is a tragic yet life-affirming war story that the world has never heard. Inspired by true events of World War I, Kathleen Rooney resurrects two long-forgotten yet unforgettable figures, recounting their tale in a pair of voices that will change the way readers look at animals, freedom, and even history itself.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143135425
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/11/2020
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 128,115
Product dimensions: 5.26(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin's Press, 2017) and the co-editor of René Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). She is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Her previous work includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Allure, Salon, The Chicago Tribune, The Nation and elsewhere. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Cher Ami

Monuments matter most to pigeons and soldiers.

I myself have become a monument, a feathered statue inside a glass case.

In life I was both a pigeon and a soldier. In death I am a piece of mediocre taxidermy, collecting dust in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

The museum has closed, and everyone has gone home. The last guests took their leave at five thirty, as they do every weekday, and even the janitorial staffers have finished their tasks: miles of floors polished and pine-scented, acres of displays gleaming and silent. A few hours remain before midnight. This is the eve of the one-hundred-year anniversary of what, according to the United States Army, was the most important day of my avian life: October 4, 1918.

I'm not sure I agree. That day was an important one, certainly, but days don't carry the same meaning for pigeons as they do for humans, and my life comprised other days, days that might be equally worth note, if not to the army then at least to me and to those I loved.

Pigeons can love.

Pigeons cannot fight. Yet I was once as well known to schoolchildren and grown-up citizens alike as any human hero of what was then called the Great War.

Hence the stuffing of my mangled body. Hence my enshrinement here, in the grandmother's attic of the entire country.

I hear the tale of my heroism-the simple version-over and over. I used to hear it daily from patriotic patrons who knew it by rote. Time having passed, other wars having superseded my own, nowadays I hear it every week or so from history-buff parents-usually French or British but sometimes American-as they lead their kids from case to case. Or I hear it from precocious children themselves, animal lovers fascinated by what I did. In their reedy voices, birdlike in their own right, they tell the tale as follows: During that big war in France, some American soldiers got trapped in enemy territory. They were called the Lost Battalion because they got surrounded by the Germans. They released homing pigeon after homing pigeon with messages for help. They watched and watched as the little birds fell, shot down by enemy fire. But the last pigeon, Cher Ami right here, wasn't going to let that stop him. Even though he got shot through the chest and the leg, the brave bird struggled on, carrying his note for forty kilometers-American kids say twenty-five miles-until, close to death, he arrived at his loft at the American base. Thanks to Cher Ami, all the soldiers were saved.

Their parents will smile and say, Very good.

Occasionally a child who doesn't know the story of the Lost Battalion will glance my way as she goes by. Catching sight of my single orange leg, she will ask, Why? Why does the pigeon only have one foot?

Balanced there on my polished oak base, I will want to explain. Naturally, I can't.

The little girl and her parents will see that I am displayed near a Yeoman (F) uniform and a field telephone. They'll read the plaque beneath the black-and-white photograph of an infantryman's back as he trails a spool of wire through the woods, toward the front: telephones were one of several new technologies deployed in the service of waging war, it states. troops strung miles of telephone wire in the field, allowing instant communication. but the lines proved vulnerable, and the army often relied on traditional means to relay messages-human runners and carrier pigeons.

The little girl and her parents will look at the engraved silver band around my remaining leg, identifying me as National Union of Racing Pigeons Number 615. I've never thought of myself that way, only as Cher Ami, my given name: French, meaning "Dear Friend," though I was a British bird.

The family will read my placard, quite brief, which states:
Cher Ami, one of the 600 carrier pigeons deployed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for his heroic service.

Huh, they'll say, and wander off, satisfied. And I, too, will feel satisfied, partly, at the knowledge they've gained.

The placard gets my name at least, if not my gender. Even now, more than a century after I was first misidentified, that error still grates. Though originally registered as a Black Check cock, I'm really a Blue Check, and when I was being taxidermied, they discovered that I was-that I am-a hen. The man doing the job informed them as much, but since they'd already had the placard made and budgets were tight, they didn't pay to change it. Good enough for government work, they said, and laughed. I've been wrongly called a cock bird ever since, in history books and military records.

I never behaved like a typical hen, it's true. But I am a female, and female war heroes are rarely given their due.
This erasure annoys me.

I do appreciate that placard for its refusal to overemphasize me: one of six hundred. There were so many of us, and so many of us could be called heroic. My fellow pigeon President Wilson, for instance, my fond companion during the war who joined me for a time in this display case, this eternal institutional afterlife. They shipped him over to the Pentagon in 2008, I think. I miss him.

Though he's not the bird I miss the most.

Pigeons have an almost bottomless capacity for longing.

I've still got Sergeant Stubby in here with me, sleeping now. He and I talk and talk and talk when we're both awake.

He was the mascot of the 102nd Infantry, 26th Division, accompanying his unit in the hellish French trenches, awarded a gold medal by General John J. Pershing. A consummate joiner, as are most dogs, he was made a lifetime member of the Red Cross, the Young Men's Christian Association, and the American Legion. He stands over there by the canteen, the bread tin, the wire cutters, the first-aid kit, the mess kit, and the trench periscope, looking as pert and ferocious as he did in life, or so he assures me.

His paws, quick and light, look ready to leap from his mahogany block mount, and even in repose his underslung jaw seems ready to bite the enemy or eat a treat. His ears appear as though they could still rotate to hear an incoming shell, and his studded leather collar gives his stalwart adorability the slight sharpness that befits an army pup. I never call him Stubby; I call him Sarge, because my doing so pleases him. He's a dog of uncertain breed but seems mostly Boston terrier in appearance and temperament. He's also the only dog-as he'll tell you, repeatedly-to have been nominated for rank and promoted to sergeant through combat.

I don't much care about rank. Most of us pigeons are less fixated on titles and decorations than on missions completed. In this respect we resemble the flying aces-or so I gather; we had no contact with them during the war and certainly never sought to emulate them. Something about performing one's duties alone, aloft above the carnage, may engender this attitude.

Dogs, on the other hand, are infantry through and through, not to mention rule-bound and craving of human regard. Sarge deserves the regard that he received. He served eighteen months on the front, in seventeen battles. He gave comfort to the wounded, saved his regiment from a mustard-gas attack, and stopped a German soldier by clasping the seat of his pants in his terrier jaws until human reinforcements arrived to complete the capture.

He, unlike me, is excited about my centenary. But as I said, dogs are like that. I am to wake him at midnight so he and I can celebrate. Knowing Sarge, this will mean that we will reminisce and sing "Auld Lang Syne." Dogs love singing. And I love Sergeant Stubby. His uncomplicated good cheer and patience remain constant even in death, and I can see why the men of the Yankee Division adored him. His owner had his pelt mounted on a plaster cast after he died in his sleep in 1926, and Sarge passed into the heterogeneous holdings of the Smithsonian in 1956, where he still greets each day as though this placement were the best and most unexpected surprise.

Sarge is, however, not immune to indignation and is given to wondering aloud why the army hasn't seen fit to present either of us-or, for that matter, the many other creatures who served alongside us, birds and horses and mules and dogs-with the Distinguished Service Cross. The DSC was not, I remind him, an honor customarily presented to animals, at least not while any of us were alive. Well, a posthumous award is still an award, he always replies, snuffling.

General Pershing did give me a small silver medal, but it was just a made-up thing. Though aren't all honors, really? Either we believe that they matter or we don't.

Still, I like having my Croix de Guerre here next to me. Next to, not on, as it's too large and heavy for a pigeon to wear, and I haven't a uniform on which to pin it. The French have long been more willing to perceive valor in sapient creatures of species other than human. Their citation notes that I-NURP Number 615, Cher Ami, un pigeon voyageur-was responsible for the safe delivery of twelve battlefield messages in France. Here in the States, I'm remembered only for that final voyage, but I flew many missions before being invalided out trying to save my Lost Battalion.

That was just my tiny corner of the war. Even from my bird's-eye perspective, the magnitude of our forces' involvement was hard to take in. Within little more than a year of its late entry into the long conflict, the United States military raised, trained, and transported an army of two million men to France. Despite the brevity of our participation, 53,402 American soldiers lost their lives in combat; 204,002 were wounded. Over a million Americans-more soldiers than had served in the entire Confederate army-fought in the forty-seven days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, advancing thirty-four miles against enemy lines, ending the stalemate.

I think of these numbers all the time. I have so much time to think and think.

I think of the eight million horses who died in the Great War, roughly the same number killed as all the soldiers of all the human armies.

I think of how humans used over a hundred thousand of us pigeons on the battlefield, and with a 98 percent success rate. Of how twenty thousand of us lost our lives in combat.

Can humans ever atone for dragooning beasts into their own conflicts on such a colossal scale? What form could such atonement take?

A few of them try. They ascribe to us their own fraughtness and foibles. And with animals' honors, the light of our heroism shines on the personnel who worked with us as well.

I like to believe that here in the Smithsonian I stand as a steadfast sentinel, reminding those whose eyes fall upon me of untold immensities of mute sacrifice. But perhaps I am just a tatty mass of feathers and a couple of glass eyes in this small display case for an enormous war.

I like to think that I betoken memory. But then I think of the scant relics of my cherished commander, Charles Whittlesey: Galloping Charlie, our captain-then-major, known as Whit to my beloved Bill Cavanaugh, and therefore to me. Whit's helmet and other articles reside in the library of his alma mater, Williams College, where nobody ever goes to see them, not really. People at least accidentally see me on their way to more popular exhibits: Julia Child's kitchen or all of World War II.

World War II, which happened even though the horrors of the Great War were said to have obviated all future war.

When he is awake, Sergeant Stubby and I debate over that. He thinks we should forgive the humans and that they meant well. I am not so sure.

These days the children passing by are not impressed with us, so accustomed have they become to zoos and aquariums, where they stare and stare at living animals, active and unstuffed in their cages, their tanks, their habitats. But even here, as in those places, we animals stare back. Humans make their mighty interventions in our lives-hunting, taming, training, breeding, eating; warping our bodies and instincts away from nature, toward their own ends-and they imagine that their great power puts them beyond our regard, beyond our judgment. But we observe, even as we are observed. Most humans forget that.

My beloved Bill Cavanaugh, the 308th Infantry Regiment's greatest pigeon man, understood this and always looked me in the eye with a feeling of reciprocity. Whit did, too. Whatever Bill wanted him to do, he did.

In life my eyes were golden. Most of us have eyes that range from red-ruby, if you use the fancy lexicon of the pigeon fancier-through orange to yellow.

The taxidermist who prepared me used standard orange-and-black, two dull disks popped into my empty sockets. I was already missing one eye, shot out on that final flight by the same bullet that carried away my right leg. An injury every bit as horrifying as I hope it sounds.

Pigeons can feel pain.

I wanted to protest, to say to the taxidermist, Pardon me, but if I am to be preserved because of my sacrifice in the war, does it make any sense to erase the signs of that sacrifice? I want to have only one false eye, because people should see what the war did to me. And I want that eye to be golden!

But even had I been alive, the man, as a man, would not have been capable of understanding my language-would not have even perceived it as language. It doesn't matter, I guess. I can still see through this flat glass. In my state of being now, I can see most everything.

Men shot the eyes out of their fellow men, too. I first saw such an injury through the wicker basket weave of my coop, bouncing upon Bill Cavanaugh's back. The man in question was walking toward us as we were supposed to be advancing. One of the officers yelled at him that he was going the wrong way. "Stragglers are to be shot," the officer said.

The man, sweaty and shaking, stopped there in the dark woods and laughed like a maniac.

"You think that order is funny, Private?" the officer said, releasing the strap on his sidearm holster.

Reading Group Guide

1. The book opens with two epigraphs: one from Aristotle and one from General Joseph Joffre. Why do you think the author chose these to precede the story? What themes do they set you up to expect?

2. Kathleen Rooney chooses to tell the story in the alternating voices of Cher Ami, a pigeon, and Charles Whittlesey, a human. How would the story be different if she had only offered one perspective? What do the two interwoven perspectives do for the impact of the overall narrative?

3. Do you consider yourself an animal lover? Does that love extend to pigeons? Did this book change the way you look at pigeons or other animals? If so, how?

4. Cher Ami speaks, from inside the Smithsonian, of “World War II, which happened even though the horrors of the Great War were said to have obviated all future war” (page 7). Did you know much about World War I, aka the Great War, prior to reading this book? If so, how did this book make you see it anew? If not, what shocked you in this book’s depiction of that conflict?

5. Compare the attitudes that the animals have regarding their role in the war to those attitudes held by the humans. How are they similar and how are they different?

6. When he’s an undergraduate at Williams College, Whit writes in his yearbook 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” (page 50). How do his youthful idealism and his excellent education prepare him—or not—for the horrors of trench warfare?

7. Both Cher Ami and Whit fall in love during their time on the front in France. How do their relationships to their beloveds—Baby Mine and Bill Cavanaugh, respectively—compare and contrast?

8. The media, including Damon Runyon and others, plays a complex role in this story in that it makes the men—and animals—of the Pocket so famous as to require them to be saved (when, under other circumstances, they would have been sacrificed), but it also paints a simplified and damaging picture of their heroism and what they endured. How should people on the home front think about the experience of soldiers at war, given that the information that they receive will always be suspect?

9. After she is shipped to the United States, Cher Ami is used by the army as a public relations tool in order to make people feel better about the war. How does that make you feel?

10. Whit returns home from the war with negative feelings about the decisions made by his commanders, yet he is extremely generous with his time and his fame whenever the army or other organizations request his assistance. Why do you think that is?

11. Whit chooses not to tell anyone of his plans to board the ship to Havana, not even his most trusted friend, Marguerite. Why do you think he opted not to tell even her, and what might have happened if he had?

12. When James Larney, the signal-panel carrier who kept a diary in the Pocket, hears about Whit’s disappearance, he buys a ticket for the Toloa to try to understand what happened to his beloved commanding officer—but he does not feel as though he is able to comprehend it. Did you come away from the book with an understanding of what happened to Whit?

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