Kathleen Rooney is a multitalented, nimble writer, moving easily among literary genres and styles. The sarcastic narrator of her previous novel, “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk,” was Macy’s groundbreaking but underappreciated first female ad writer. It’s quite a leap, and a beautifully successful one, from modern New York City to the trenches of the Argonne Forest near the end of World War I and the alternating voices of a soldier and a bird in her new novel, “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.”
Cher Ami is a passenger pigeon assigned to the American 77th Division, about 600 men commanded by Maj. Charles Whittlesey. In his civilian life, he was a thoughtful, Latin-speaking lawyer. His motley crew is composed mainly of immigrant and working-class New Yorkers with no military training. It is October 1918, and the company has been ordered to advance through the Argonne, in northeastern France, to the German front. It slowly dawns on the major and the bird that they have advanced too rapidly and efficiently. There’s no answer from the American and French divisions that are supposed to guard their left and right flanks. They even start being bombarded, by mistake, from the rear by the Americans.
For six hellish days they are trapped in “the pocket,” the Charlevaux ravine, surrounded by German troops. Cher Ami manages to fly 25 miles in record time to deliver the message of their location and need for rescue.
Rooney’s plot delves imaginatively into a historical incident; all the characters, real names preserved, including the bird’s, are based on actual soldiers. Rooney creates warm and empathetic portraits of them. “The Lost Battalion” was the subject of a lot of high-volume patriotic newspaper hooey right after the war.
Whittlesey and Cher Ami were trotted out in parades and celebratory town-hall gatherings all over the country. There is still a film, re-creating their war experiences, in which the real Whittlesey and the pigeon appear.
Cher Ami is now a stuffed exhibit in the Smithsonian, narrating from his perch, missing the eye and leg he lost in his last mission. Whittlesey, sick of his gaudy fame, addresses us from a ship on the way to South America. Both speak in grave, elegiac voices and manage to wrest some poetry from the drudgery, boredom, the daily shock of wounded and dying men.
They demonstrate the stubborn persistence and endurance that make for bravery. The novelist, with admirable restraint of her anger at a war born of greed and arrogance by politicians and generals, unfolds with patient attention to the characters and their impossible mission, what real courage is. It’s what the media of the time turned into glorious heroics. “Give-em-hell Charlie,” the real Whittlesey, as presented by Rooney, said no such thing to the German messenger demanding his surrender.
The use of a pigeon narrator in a dead-serious story could have come off as a gimmick. But Rooney uses him well. From the vantage point of his flights he sees, more clearly than the major, what a mess humans routinely make, when they interfere with the natural world and each other.
Brigitte Frase is a Minneapolis book critic and a past winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey
By: Kathleen Rooney.
Publisher: Penguin Books, 336 pages, $16.99.
Event: In conversation with J. Ryan Stradal, 7 p.m. Aug. 20, virtual event via Facebook, hosted by Magers & Quinn.