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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


Rooney follows Cher Ami, a British-born homing pigeon, and Charles Whittlesey, a Harvard-educated lawyer and WWI veteran, in this disappointing tale (after Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk). Cher Ami and Whittlesey alternately narrate their life stories leading up to the war: Cher Ami, female despite the name, is hatched into a happy pigeon family on an idyllic farm and becomes a prize-winning racer; Whittlesey, a New Englander, enjoys New York’s privacy and abundance of other secretly gay men. As a commissioned officer, Whittlesey must adjust to the coarse draftees under his command, while Cher Ami is a natural in her training (“The day I first flew home was the day I knew the meaning of true purpose”). Whittlesey goes on to become an effective commander, leading his men with pistol drawn and exceeding expectations from superiors. This proves dangerous when his battalion (now famously known as the “lost battalion”) gets trapped behind German lines and is under attack for days before they are relieved. Cher Ami, especially when talking about her youth or her taxidermied afterlife in the Smithsonian, is often appealing, but the two decorated war heroes are often tiresome, whether explaining how pigeons can’t understand human racism or the hollow life of a hero who couldn’t save his men. Rooney’s characters’ tendency to belabor the obvious ultimately sinks the book. (Aug.)

From the Publisher

"If you haven't yet discovered the offbeat genius of Kathleen Rooney, start here with a novel both heartbreaking and sharply funny. It justifies its own premise on the first page, and quickly surpasses that premise. Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is brilliant and surprising at every turn."   
—Rebecca Makkai, Pulitzer finalist for The Great Believers

"Imaginative and audacious...Rooney uses Cher Ami's bird's-eye view and curious afterlife to exhilerating, comic, and terrifying effect, while Whit's tragic fate is exquisitely rendered... Unforgettable... A celebration of animal intelligence, and tribute to altruism and courage."
Booklist *Starred Review*

"Hands down, one of the best books of the year. Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is a magnificent achievement, and everything I want from a novel. I loved it.”
—J. Ryan Stradal, bestselling author of The Lager Queen of Minnesota

"You'll be amazed at the depths of character Rooney plumbs from a literal bird's-eye-view, and by how she entwines the voices of a messenger pigeon and a witty, disconsolate veteran to craft a story based on true events."
Chicago Magazine

“A properly mysterious, warmly convincing work of bright imagination. A pigeon and a haunted man returned generously, gently, to the story of the world.”
—Sebastian Barry, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Days Without End

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is a splendid novel; so smart, so beautifully written—a heroic tale of the cross-species relationship between pigeon and man during the Great War. Affecting and imaginative, this story vibrated deep in my heart because it all felt so very true.” 
—Annie Hartnett, author of Rabbit Cake

"Her well-researched novel touches on the folly of war (particularly this war), the sentience of animals, and—especially—survivor guilt and imposter syndrome. Rooney’s writing has a delicate lyricism...she injects humor and whimsy into an otherwise solemn story. A curiosity but richly imagined and genuinely affecting."
Kirkus Reviews

“Kathleen Rooney’s immersive, immaculate new novel is both a memorial and an imperative, broadening our collective definition of humanity and courage. In bell-clear prose, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey paints a harrowing portrait of the callousness and deep compassion of those—both man and bird—involved in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Like Rooney’s rich and poignant characters, readers will emerge from the pocket irrevocably changed.”
—Julia Fine, author of What Should Be Wild
"In this extraordinary novel Kathleen Rooney manages to transport the reader both inside the foxholes of World War I and above them, flying over a landscape grotesquely altered by a war whose logic defies all efforts—both human and animal—to grasp it. Both a gripping tale of survival during and after war, and a contemplation of the ties between human and animal, this is a beautiful, original, deeply empathetic book." 
—Caitlin Horrocks, author of The Vexations

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is brilliant—elegant and wise, deeply felt and flecked with humor. Rooney has a gift for illuminating the intimate desires of her historical characters while offering insights into our own bruised reality. It takes command and courage to write a novel as daring yet as quietly resonant as this one. I was blown away.”
—Sarah Domet, author of The Guineveres

Praise for Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk:

“Transporting…witty, poignant and sparkling.”
People (People Picks Book of the Week)

“Prescient and quick....A perfect fusing of subject and writer, idea and ideal.”
Chicago Tribune

“Extraordinary…hilarious…Elegantly written, Rooney creates a glorious paean to a distant literary life and time―and an unabashed celebration of human connections that bridge past and future.
Publishers Weekly *starred review*

"Rooney's delectably theatrical fictionalization is laced with strands of tart poetry and emulates the dark sparkle of Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Truman Capote. Effervescent with verve, wit, and heart, Rooney’s nimble novel celebrates insouciance, creativity, chance, and valor."
Booklist *starred review*

Kirkus Reviews

A World War I saga narrated by a homing pigeon and an American military officer, both real-life heroes.

On Oct. 4, 1918, Cher Ami, a British-trained carrier pigeon, flew a highly dangerous mission in France, delivering a vital message to headquarters from besieged American troops on the front lines. The bird, now stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian, tells her story on the centenary of her historic flight. Maj. Charles Whittlesey was a well-educated, mild-mannered Manhattan attorney who enlisted in the Army and served as commander of what came to be known as The Lost Battalion. From Whittlesey’s account, we learn how he and his men were trapped in enemy territory and cut off from supply lines for five hellish days, under attack not only from the Germans, but from American “friendly fire.” It was Whittlesey who wrote the desperate note that Cher Ami—though severely injured in flight—managed to convey. The major was a strong, well-respected leader, but he held himself responsible for the many deaths and disfiguring injuries in his regiment. Returning home from war, he withered under the glare of the hero’s welcome and sudden fame thrust on him. Rooney, author of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk(2017), has a lot on her mind here. Her well-researched novel touches on the folly of war (particularly thiswar), the sentience of animals, and—especially—survivor guilt and imposter syndrome. Rooney’s writing has a delicate lyricism; particularly vivid are passages describing the horrific sounds (and smells) of battle. The talking pigeon does give one pause: She’s hardly the first such creature in literature, but some of her observations, especially when she rails against human foibles, border on cute. Still, she injects humor and whimsy into an otherwise solemn story.

A curiosity but richly imagined and genuinely affecting.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525507093
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/11/2020
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 6,465
File size: 2 MB

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.

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