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A Pigeon and a Boy

A Pigeon and a Boy

4.3 12
by Meir Shalev, Evan Fallenberg (Translator)

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A mesmerizing novel of two love stories, separated by half a century but connected by one enchanting act of devotion—from the internationally acclaimed Israeli writer Meir Shalev. 

During the 1948 War of Independence—a time when pigeons are still used to deliver battlefield messages—a gifted young pigeon handler is mortally wounded. In the


A mesmerizing novel of two love stories, separated by half a century but connected by one enchanting act of devotion—from the internationally acclaimed Israeli writer Meir Shalev. 

During the 1948 War of Independence—a time when pigeons are still used to deliver battlefield messages—a gifted young pigeon handler is mortally wounded. In the moments before his death, he dispatches one last pigeon. The bird is carrying his extraordinary gift to the girl he has loved since adolescence. Intertwined with this story is the contemporary tale of Yair Mendelsohn, who has his own legacy from the 1948 war. Yair is a tour guide specializing in bird-watching trips who, in middle age, falls in love again with a childhood girlfriend. His growing passion for her, along with a gift from his mother on her deathbed, becomes the key to a life he thought no longer possible. 

Unforgettable in both its particulars and its sweep, A Pigeon and A Boy is a tale of lovers then and now—of how deeply we love, of what home is, and why we, like pigeons trained to fly in one direction only, must eventually return to it.  In a voice that is at once playful, wise, and altogether beguiling, Meir Shalev tells a story as universal as war and as intimate as a winged declaration of love.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this stunning tale, Shalev masterfully interweaves two remarkable personal stories. Yair Mendelsohn, a middle-aged Israeli tour guide favored with bird watchers, learns that one of his new American clients fought in the Palmach, a clandestine military force in Israel's 1948 war of independence. The American recounts a day when a homing pigeon handler, nicknamed "the Baby" for his childlike features, was killed in that war and, in his final moments, sent off one last pigeon. Yair is familiar with the American's story and listens with wistfulness. As Yair slowly tells of his present and his past, Shalev patiently builds tension around the Baby's final dispatch, giving vivid detail on homing pigeons and conveying the unique relationship between the birds and their keepers-which echoes the touching care with which the Baby and his true love, "the Girl," treat one another. The dark, stocky Yair, whose marriage is threatened by his burgeoning relationship with childhood friend Tirzah, makes a sympathetic protagonist. This gem of a story about the power of love, which won Israel's Brenner Prize, brims with luminous originality. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Images of home in its many guises permeate Israeli novelist Shalev's latest work to be translated into English, following Blue Mountain, The Loves of Judith, and Esau. With the land of Israel in the background and frequently the foreground, the intertwined stories introduce two teenage handlers of messenger homing pigeons whose love blooms in the 1940s through the War of Independence and the battle for Jerusalem, as well as narrator Yair Mendelson, his unusual conception, his unhappy marriage, and his longing for a home of his own. Yair achieves his wish: he builds his new home with the help of his female contractor, with whom he falls in love. All the characters and their families are linked, homing pigeons make their nests, and the characters whose lives come together all have "homing" stories as well. Magical realism works beautifully in this powerfully suffused novel of love, loss, and the need for home. Highly recommended.
—Molly Abramowitz

Kirkus Reviews
Romance between two pigeon handlers has unexpected consequences in this award-winning novel from Israeli author Shalev. Yair, a tour guide in Jerusalem and occasional chauffeur for his wealthy wife's clients, meets a veteran of the 1948 War of Independence who recalls the bloody death of a young, pudgy homing-pigeon trainer known to the troops only as "the Baby." Baby's last act is to dispatch a pigeon. The message the bird carries and its intended recipient form one narrative thread of this rambling novel. Alternating with Baby's story is Yair's midlife crisis. His beautiful wife Liora is an ice queen. He makes constant internal conversation with his mother, Raya, whose quirks (endearing to Yair, annoying to the rest of the family) include never deciding anything without a "for and against" chart. Baby grows up on a kibbutz, learning his way around a pigeon loft early. He meets "the Girl," a pigeon handler at the Tel Aviv zoo, and they fall in love. But before the two virgins can consummate their passion, war intervenes. Raya (after weighing "for and against") left Yair's pediatrician father-the children call him Yourdad because that's how she refers to him-breaking his heart. Yourdad, suffering from dementia, imagines he sees Raya, who by now has died of cancer. Yair, who resembles no one else in his family-Raya, Yourdad and brother Benjamin are all tall blondes; he's short and swarthy-is similarly mismatched to willowy Liora, and has always loved Tirzah, a contractor and daughter of the family's closest friend, Meshulam Fried. The fact that Yair resembles the Frieds proves to be a giant red herring. When Raya gives Yair a parting gift of money, he is determined to build a house of hisown, with Tirzah's help. The "homing" symbolism is overdone, and the convergence of the two story lines is not exactly a surprise. Forklift-loads of extraneous material dilute the drama.
From the Publisher
"Shalev creates a world that has the richness of invention and the obsessiveness of dreams."
The New York Times Book Review

"Shalev has deftly layered Yair's story in such a manner that a refreshingly nuanced picture of Israel emerges."
The Miami Herald

"Vivid characters and sharp dialogue... By working stories in the past and present against each other, Shalev brings into questions the validity, and the reliability, of memory."
The New York Times Book Review

"In homing pigeons, Shalev has found a motif that is replete with symbolism and scriptural allusion that he uses expertly, with maximum layered effect."
Ottawa Citizen

"Brilliant... Universal in its scope and examination of human longing for a sense of roosting."
The Jerusalem Post

"An exquisite creation, a work of quiet language tat needs no shouting to attain its impact."
Chicago Jewish Star

"Stunning... This gem of a story about the power of love, which won Israel's Brenner Prize, brims with luminous originality."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.43(w) x 9.51(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Pigeon and a Boy
By Meir Shalev
Random House
Copyright © 2007 Meir Shalev
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805242683

Chapter One

Chapter One


And suddenly," said the elderly American man in the white shirt, "suddenly, a pigeon flew overhead, above that hell."

Everyone fell silent. His unexpected Hebrew and the pigeon that had alighted from his mouth surprised all present, even those who could not understand what he was saying.

"A pigeon? What pigeon?"

The man—stout and suntanned as only Americans can be, with moccasins on his feet and a mane of white hair on his head—pointed to the turret of the monastery. Many years had passed, but there were a few things he still remembered about the terrible battle that had taken place here. "And forgetting them," he declared, "is something I'll never be able to do." Not only the fatigue and the horror, not only the victory—"A victory that took both sides by surprise," he noted—but also the minor details, the ones whose importance becomes apparent only later: for one, the stray bullets-or perhaps they were intentional—that struck the bell of the monastery on occasion—"Right here, this very bell"—and then the bell would ring sharply, an odd sound that sank, then abated, but continued to resound in the darkness for a long while.

"And the pigeon?"

"A strange sound. Sharp at first, and high-pitched, like even the bell was surprised; then it got weaker, inpain but not dead, until the next shot hit it. One of our wounded guys said, 'Bells are used to getting hit from the inside, not the outside.'"

He smiled to himself as though he had only just understood. His teeth were bared, and even those were terribly white, as only elderly American teeth can be.

"But what about the pigeon? What kind of a pigeon was it?"

"I'm ninety-nine percent sure it was a homing pigeon, a Palmach carrier pigeon. We'd been fighting all night, and in the morning, two or three hours after sunrise, we saw it suddenly lifting off."

This Hebrew he had unleashed, without prior warning, was good—in spite of his accent—but his use of the term homing pigeon in English sounded more pleasant and proper than its Hebrew equivalent, even if the bird in question did belong to the Palmach.

"How could you be sure?"

"A pigeon handler was assigned to us, a pigeon expert with a little dovecote—that's what it was called—on his back. Maybe he managed to dispatch the bird before he was killed, or maybe the dovecote busted and the bird flew away."

"He was killed? How?"

"How? There was no lack of how to get killed here—all you had to do was choose: by a bullet or shrapnel, in the head or the stomach or that major artery in your thigh. Sometimes it was right away and sometimes it was real slow, a few hours after you got hit."

His yellow eyes pierced me. "Amazing, isn't it?" he said, chuckling. "We went to battle with homing pigeons, like in ancient Greece."


And suddenly, above that hell, the fighters saw a pigeon. Born from bulbs of smoke, delivered from shrouds of dust, the pigeon rose, she soared. Above the grunts and the shouts, above the whisper of shrapnel in the chill of the air, above the invisible paths of bullets, above the exploding grenades and the barking rifles and the pounding cannons.

A plain-looking pigeon: bluish-gray with scarlet legs and two dark stripes like those of a prayer shawl adorning the wings. A pigeon like a thousand others, like any other pigeon. Only an expert's ears could pick up on the power of those beating wings, double that of normal pigeons; only an expert's eyes could discern the width and the depth of the bird's breast, or the beak that carries forth the slant of the forehead in a straight line, or the characteristic light-colored swelling where it meets the head. Only the heart of a pigeon fancier could grasp and contain the longing that has collected inside such a bird and determined its course and forged its strength. But already his eyes had grown dim, his ears had fallen deaf, his heart had emptied and was still. Only she remained—the pigeon—her yearning for home, his final wish.

Up. First and foremost, up. Above the blood, above the fire and the columns of smoke. Above the wounded, their flesh riddled, torn, burnt, silent. Above those whose bodies will remain intact but whose souls have been extinguished. Above those who have died and who, with the passing of many days, will die once again with the deaths of those who remembered them.

Up. Aloft and distant, to where the gunfire will become a faint ticking and the shouts will fall mute and the smell will dissipate and the smoke will clear, and the dead will appear one like the other as if cast from a single mold, and the living will take their leave of them, each man to his destiny, wondering what they did right to deserve to live, and what their comrades—lying now before them—did wrong that they deserved to die. And then a quick look to the sides, and homeward, in a straight line, as homing pigeons fly. Homeward, her heart fluttering but courageous, golden eyes frightened but fully open, missing no helpful topographical detail, a transparent, auxiliary set of eyelids pulled taut over them against blinding light and dust. Another thin stripe embellishes the short, curved tail, a hint at the bird's ancient Damascene pedigree. The small, rounded head, full of yearning and memories: the loft, the pigeonhole, the cooing of a mate, the warm scent of the nest and brooding. The hand of a young woman passing over the feeding trough, the tinkling of seeds in the young woman's box calls her, the woman's gaze scans the heavens awaiting her, and her words—"Come, come, come"—invite and comfort.

"Not only me. We all saw it," the elderly American said. "They must have, too, because all the weapons fell silent for a moment. Ours and theirs. Not a single gun fired, no grenades exploded, and all the mouths stopped shouting. It was so quiet that we heard the bird's wings beating the air. For a single moment every eye and every finger was following that bird as she did what we all wanted to do: make her way home."

By now he was quite agitated; he paced to and fro, his fingers plunged deep into the snowy-white thickness of his leonine hair. "After all, that's what she was: a homing pigeon. That's all she wants and all she knows. She took off, didn't make that big circle in the air you always read about in books, the one that homing pigeons make before they figure out the right direction to take. She just flew straight out of there, no delay, like an arrow shot in that direction—northwest, if I'm not mistaken; yes, according to the time of day and the sun, I'm correct. Right in that direction. You wouldn't believe how fast she disappeared."

A matter of seconds. With the greatest of longing and speed. She was there, then she faded. The hand that dispatched her fell to the ground; the gaze still followed her, the bell still resounded, refusing to die out, a few final notes spilling forth, gathering toward that distant sea of silence, while the blue-gray of the pigeon was swallowed into its twin on the horizon, and was gone. And below, the fingers returned to their triggers and the eyes to their scopes, and the gun barrels resumed their thunder and the mouths their groaning and gaping and gulping of air, their bellowing, their gasping of last breaths.

Now the man turned to his friends, reverted to American English, explaining and describing and pointing: "Over there somewhere, behind the pine trees," or "Right here." He told of an Iraqi armored vehicle equipped with a machine gun and a cannon that "was running around here like it owned the place." With the gestures of a generous host he motioned to "right there, that's where I lay with my gun, at the corner of the roof. But over on that building there was a sniper and he put a bullet in me."

With dexterity uncommon in a man his age, he bent over and rolled up his trousers, exposing two pale scars between his knee and ankle. "See? Right there. The little one's where the bullet went in, and the big one's where it came out. Our sapper carried me down on his back, went back up to take my place, and got hit by a mortar shell." He reverted to Hebrew, meant only for me. "A bigger and stronger guy even than me, poor sucker. Torn right in half, died in a split second."

He talked and recounted, freeing memories that had been imprisoned inside him for so long. He let them breathe a little air, stretch their bones, see the place where they were formed; he let them argue, compare: Which had changed? Which hadn't even been there in the first place? Which were worthy of being preserved, and which no longer?

"And the guy who brought the pigeons?" I asked, pursuing my own agenda. "The pigeon handler? You said he was killed. Did you see where exactly?"

Those eyes settled on me again, the yellow eyes of a lion. One large, tanned hand wrapped itself around my shoulders; another large, tanned hand rose in the air and pointed. Age spots on the back of it, its fingernails buffed, a silver sailor's watch beautifying its wrist, a white shirtsleeve pressed and rolled to the elbow. It was a hand easy to imagine clutching a rifle, patting the head of a grandchild, pounding on a table, knowing waists and thighs.


A good and pleasant vigor coursed through me suddenly, as if those were the eyes of a father gazing upon his son, as if this were the hand of a father slipping from head to shoulder—guiding, offering strength and support.

"Where? Show me exactly."

He tilted his aged head downward to mine, just as all the tall people in my life do when speaking to short ones. "There. Between the edge of the grass and the children on the swings. You see? There was a small stone shack there, no more than six or seven feet on either side, a kind of gardener's toolshed. We were all positioned in the courtyard and the rooms of the monastery while the guys who stayed on from the other company were holed up in that building, on the other side of this alley. The armored vehicle blasted anybody who so much as stuck his nose outside one of the buildings. But the pigeon handler—God knows why or how-made it out and got himself over there, which is where we found him when it was all over."


I couldn't stay there any longer. I shepherded them into Behemoth—that's the name my wife gave the huge Chevy Suburban she bought for me—and we departed for the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Now I felt the full force of my fatigue; a small group can be more demanding and bothersome than a whole busload of tourists. The day had risen on us in Tel Aviv, after which we'd continued to Kibbutz Hulda and the story of the convoy named for it, been detained for a light meal of sandwiches at the Harel observation point, and jounced about on the Burma Road on the way to Hamasrek and the stronghold at Sha'ar Hagai for more explanations and more lookouts.

From there I took them to the Palmach cemetery at Kiryat Anavim, then into Jerusalem, to the monastery and this surprise: that the eldest of the six Americans I was ferrying about and guiding-a senator, his aide, his adviser, and three businessmen, all of them guests of the Foreign Ministry—had once been a member of the Palmach and had fought in the battle that had taken place there, which I was attempting to describe for them. And from there to the even bigger surprise of the homing pigeon that had suddenly taken wing from the pigeonholes of his memory.

"Did you know him?" I asked.


"The pigeon handler you told us about earlier."

His face filled the rearview mirror of Behemoth. "Not really. He wasn't one of the fighting gang—he'd come to our brigade to set up an operational pigeon loft. They said he was a top-class professional, that he'd been handling pigeons since he was a boy."

His eyes did not let up their vigil; they continued to pin me down like the hooked spines of a caper bush. "I don't even remember his name anymore. A lot of other friends of mine were killed, and it's been so many years."

At the stoplight facing the German Colony cemetery I turned left. I took advantage of the crowds of people and the cars that slowed us to a crawl to spread my wares: the Rephaim and the Philistines, the British and the Germans. "Gentlemen, please note the verses from the Bible inscribed on the portals. And over there is the old Jerusalem train station. It's no longer in use, but when I was a child I would travel from here to Tel Aviv with my mother. In a steam engine, can you believe it?"

The train would rumble its way slowly, creaking along the metallic curves of the ravine. I remember the tiny, well-tended vegetable beds of the Arabs on the far side of the border, the soapy froth amassed by sewer water. The wind would set aloft bits of ash from the steam engine and you would brush them from your hair, happy: we were going home, to Tel Aviv...

I am revisited by the scent of bread, hard-boiled egg, and tomato, the provisions you always brought with us. My forehead would shudder—just as it is shuddering now, as I write these words—in anticipation of the egg you would rap on it, your favorite game. "Plaff!" you would shout, laughing. Each time I was taken by surprise; each time you laughed. And the rustling of your fingers in the wax paper as they pinched salt and sprinkled it. And that little song you would sing with a child's inflections: The engine's sounding, choo, choo, choo / Now take your seat, and that means you! And the smile that spread across your face the farther we got from Jerusalem, a smile of joy and contentment: home, to Tel Aviv.

Yes, of course they believe it. Why wouldn't they? The tour has been meticulously planned; the sandwiches, coffee, and juice have awaited them at the appointed hours and places, lending reliability and validity to the tour guide's memories and explanations. At the cafe of the Cinematheque, the reserved table appears as promised, as do the sunset and the view. That's Mount Zion, and over there is David's Tomb, if anyone's interested in those kinds of sites and stories; and down below, Sultan's Pool, and the ancient spigot "that waters the parched and weary."

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev Copyright © 2007 by Meir Shalev.Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Meir Shalev was born in 1948 on Nahalal, Israel’s first moshav, and is one of Israel’s most celebrated novelists. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages and have been best sellers in Israel, Holland, and Germany. In 1999 the author was awarded the Juliet Club Prize (Italy). He has also received the Prime Minister’s Prize (Israel), the Chiavari (Italy), the Entomological Prize (Israel), the WIZO Prize (France, Israel, and Italy), and for A Pigeon and a Boy, the Brenner Prize, Israel’s highest literary recognition. A columnist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Shalev lives in Jerusalem and in northern Israel with his wife and children.

Evan Fallenberg (www.evanfallenberg.com) translates fiction by well-known and upcoming Israeli writers. He teaches creative writing at Bar Ilan University in Israel and is the author of Light Fell, a novel.

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Pigeon and a Boy 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
the book was on my book club list to be read and for our group to discuss on March 14th. Unfortunately, after I started reading the book I just could not get into it. I forced myself to read apporximately 100 pages and just put it down, did not finish it at all. Just was not interested in reading about pigeons. Although supposedly it is supposed to be ficton, I somehow got the impression from the first 100 pages I read that it was actually based on the author's life. The first book I ordered, In the Garden of the Beast was excellant and I am referring it to everyone. Will NOT refer a Pigeon and a boy.Rating O Charlotte Rutta
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Ronci More than 1 year ago
A Pigeon and a Boy is a fine illustration of newly created parallel worlds which flow along unerringly, develop a rhythm by their own uniqueness and individuality and finally intersect with an ardency and impact that leaves the reader startled. Throughout the narrative, the reader experiences shifts in moods. The tone of the story begins quietly, almost reluctantly. Building on this, the drama offers brief glimpses of unresolved sorrows and temporary rays of sunshine and then further storms follow until the tension builds to an almost unbearable point. The ability of a story to put a finger on a sensitive part of somebody's soul is the true test of artistic commission. The soldier, Baby, as he lay dying, "Cold gushed from his bones and inundated his flesh. His heart grew tranquil... with open eyes, watched the pigeon fly, at first light-colored as she distanced herself, then darker as she ascended, with soft, puffed breast and strong wings, so beautiful that he craved nothing more than to rise toward her, to hold and kiss her before he died." The novel is comprised of two separate stories conjoined by an unlikely device: a letter transported by carrier pigeon. The first story takes place around the 1940s before and during the Six-Day War when homing pigeons were used for military purposes. Shalev's characters in the first story are two pigeon handlers, Baby and Raya, whose love affair is kept alive via letters carried by the pigeons. The second story is set in the present, centering around an Israeli man, Yair Mendelsohn, who wants to escape his current life in Jerusalem for a new home on the coast. The stories are intertwined by the motif of "home," symbolized by the pigeon's constant flight back. The building of a home is a creation of comfort. Shalev's rich sensory details allow the reader not only to see, but to touch, taste and hear and fully enter the scene. Meriam is defined by the incessant jiggling of her knees and the smoke curling from her evening cigarette; Raya's voice resounds in our ears saying, "I can't take it anymore"; Meshulam's blue handkerchief that appears from his breast pocket to dab the corner of his eye dabs our tears as well. Shalev paints Yair as a flawed character, one who is easily flustered, hampered throughout life by his short stature, dark, closely spaced eyes, steel-wool hair, the face of a thug and his thick skull. Benjamin, Yair's brother, was the charmer, an angelic child with soft, fair colored curls and precocious, cunning intellect. Yair believes him to be more loved by his mother, a resentment that percolates their lives. His reluctance to leave his loveless marriage is disturbing. Baby possessed the qualities of goodness, virtue, tenderness, passion and loyalty rarely seen. Whatever handicaps he had by way of birth, he remained true to his love of pigeons and to the ten characteristics of a good pigeon handler. Examined carefully, they mimic the Ten Commandments. Baby was a man of God. In a mystical way, this part seemed written by the female Belgian homing pigeon that Raya gave to Baby. As the pigeon soared and took flight, Baby ascended; his heart beat in synchrony with the heart of the pigeon. She flew fearlessly, determinedly and came home bringing Baby with her. She also reached out to us through storm clouds, treacherous winds, thunder, past hawk-eyed interceptors and deadly bullets and taught us that love and coming home to rest are what makes us whole.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Luciaparla More than 1 year ago
Thought provoking. Lends itself to a very interesting discussion.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While on vacation, I saw this book on the library shelf. I was caught up in the story, the characters, and especially how they all came together at the beautiful finale. The author was not familiar to me but I found him to possess skills as a masterful writer and storyteller! A great way to spend a rainy day.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A compeling tale of love and life. I couldn't put it down.