Book Review for “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey” by Kathleen Rooney.
Official blurb: 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.
Thanks for the free book, @PRHGlobal/@prhinternational!
Let me start off by saying that the biggest reason why I can’t give this book a full five stars is one that I’m sure will not disturb many readers; many others will probably rate this book much higher, and rightfully so. However, in all honesty, I could not overlook the fact that one of the narrators happens to be a stuffed, homing pigeon, on display at the famous Smithsonian, at the centennial of the end of WWI – or, the “Great War” as they called it at the time. Yes, I know there have been many books with animals quite successfully narrating the story. George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is one, “Watership Down” by Richard Adams is another. Yes, I did enjoy both of those books, but I really struggled with this novel.
I think the main reason for this are the differences between those books and this novel. First, those were fantastical books, either meant to be read as allegories, where humans were only in the background. Another difference is that none of the animal narrators in those books were dead when they begin to tell their stories. I think you all know by now that I’m really not into the paranormal genre; I can take a ghost or two on the sidelines once in a while, but I really don’t want one to be a main protagonist, and certainly not one who isn’t a human’s spirit. Using this mechanic also made Cher Ami’s narrative inconsistent; there were times where she saw things happening outside the museum, but then she couldn’t connect with other pigeons and people from her life – both alive and dead. That made no sense to me; either your spirit can transcend your physical post-life placement, or it can’t. In short, it seemed to me that had Rooney chosen to not tell Cher Ami’s story in first person, from beyond the grave, and instead done some kind of third person omnipresent telling, I might have rated this book higher.
On the other hand, throughout Whittlesey’s narrative, he is totally alive, although some of the things he recounts are so horrible that I’m guessing he wasn’t happy he survived them. His story focuses mostly on his leading one of the cohorts during the fighting in the Argonne Forest in France, into a battle that came to be known as the “Lost Battalion”. Some of what Rooney has him recount are so gory and shocking, it made me quite uncomfortable to read these passages. However, here’s the thing; Rooney’s prose is so vivid that I could almost smell the stenches and taste the mustard tinge in the air. I think that this is what kept me reading to the end of this book – Rooney’s writing style. I knew this about Rooney before, and frankly, I asked for this novel solely on the basis that I adored her previous book, “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and I didn’t really investigate any further; I just wanted to read another book by her. Rest assured that although this novel didn’t work for me because of the dead pigeon, it will NOT put me off Rooney as an author. Furthermore, I should note that despite all the grisly bits, Rooney was also able to inject quite a bit of humor and beauty into this story.
Aside from the beautiful writing here, there was this very clever thing that Rooney did that I enjoyed. As she switched between the Major’s story and Cher Ami’s story, the opening lines of the parallel chapters were similar if not exactly the same. What this did was make you feel like there was a type of spiritual connection between these two, as well as a literary one; they each told their sides of the same story, and could almost read each other’s minds. It was also interesting how Rooney decided to assume that both Cher Ami and the Major were homosexuals. With Cher Ami, Rooney made it seem like this was very natural among the pigeon population, and was uncontested by any of the males with whom she was confined. Obviously, the Major had to hide his orientation, because that was how it was back then. Most importantly, the tenderness that Rooney uses to describe the romantic attachments of these two was just splendid.
I guess this is why I’m feeling guilty about my rating for this novel. There is so much to love here, including many wise observances of the faults and strengths of the human condition, written so compassionately, that it sometimes took my breath away. Despite this, I just couldn’t get past Cher Ami as a narrator, both as a bird and as a dead one. However, I will still warmly recommend this to readers who can easily ignore this, because Rooney’s writing is just that amazing. I think the best rating from me for this book would be three and a half stars out of five.
Penguin will release “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey” by Kathleen Rooney on August 11, 2020. This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBook or audiobook), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.