From the publisher:
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.
With the arrival of the centennial of World War One (1914-1918), a good number of books have been published about aspects of that conflict. These deal with situations that are not necessarily fiction about men in war, but in many cases regarding little known facts previously not brought out but well researched and of interest for readers today.
Kathleen Rooney’s book is about a U.S. battalion that took part in the battle at the Argonne Forest in 1918. The troops were part of an attack organized in conjunction with soldiers from other U.S. troops and also from the French army. The battalion managed to reach the area ordered to by high command but the rest of the force did not: leaving these soldiers isolated and surrounded by German troops.
In the chaos of the situation artillery from the U.S. side was misaimed and landed on the isolated battalion killing many. There was no radio in those days and messengers sent to advise of the mix-up were killed. Another method was via the use of homing pigeons normally carried by soldiers trained in flying these birds.
The plight of the surrounded soldiers became widely known and they were termed “The Lost Battalion” by people far and wide. Cher Ami, a homing pigeon was sent with a message for the artillery to stop their fire. The bird completed its flight wounded by enemy bullets and losing an eye and one leg. Ms. Rooney tells her story using two protagonists; one is Major Charles Whittlesey and the other Cher Ami. It is an interesting combination that does get the author’s story across.
Whittlesey brings out the antiwar direction of the book. He is placed in command of the Battalion and must order men to face death in order to comply with directives from generals that live quite nicely behind the lines and don’t see the real cost in the lives of the decisions they make. His post-war life is described by the author as a major guilt trip. Also, an interesting mention is made concerning Woodrow Wilson, then president of the United States. He campaigned for the presidency in 1916, with the slogan “He kept us out of war” but then just a few months after the election promoted a declaration of war against Germany. His actions caused the deaths of thousands of American soldiers that were not necessary to prevent any actions by Germany against the U.S.
Using a homing pigeon as one of the two narrators of the book does not in any way detract from the story. On the contrary, that factor allows the presentation of further commentary by an entity that sees the foibles of soldiers and war from afar and still completes what is thought of as her duty. An interesting aside is the fact that a silent movie was made in 1919 featuring Whittlesey and other survivors of the “lost battalion” For those interested it is available on YouTube.
10/2020 Paul Lane
CHER AMI AND MAJOR WHITTLESEY by Kathleen Rooney. Penguin Books (August 11, 2020). ISBN: 978-0143135425. 336 pages.