Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney

We officers tried to provide relief when we could, but in that tense atmosphere any generous act might also be an affront to dignity. Dignity, I was often reminded, is something most men prize above their very lives. My men were prepared to risk the latter for me, and in return they expected me to honor — and defend — the former.

I thought this was a non-fiction book until I brought it home and realized that it is historical fiction. It makes sense now that I know the chapters alternate between Cher Ami and Whittlesey’s points of view.

Cher Ami was one of many homing pigeons that were used in World War I to send coded messages between American soldiers on the battlefield, to their commanders. In this case, The Lost Battalion led by Charles Whittlesey, was stuck in the forests of France trying to fight off the Germans with no other soldiers to relieve them and no way out. Cher Ami delivered a message that saved their lives.

Patriotic parades are for politicians and civilians, not for soldiers, not for pigeons.

There are some books that while you’re reading it you know it will become one of your favorites. This is one of those books for me and by page five I had realized it.

Every two chapters the characters’ first sentences mirror each other. I enjoyed that aspect a lot because it threads the human and animal world together in a unique way. Rooney’s writing makes you feel like you are either in the mind of the characters. You might be thinking that a pigeon’s point of view would be impossible to capture, but you would be incorrect. The magic of the book makes it possible.

Pigeons are capable of neither hatred nor patriotism. But there on the platform I began to see that humans had difficulty understanding the war without animal metaphors. “The fighting is raging like a tiger,” someone on the platform said.

None seemed to understand that the war had come from them.

The pigeon’s point of view sheds light on war in a very different way than the human’s. Charles’ experience of the war is tangled up with the human lives that he was trying to protect, with the pigeon sort of being an afterthought in his life. Cher Ami brings in a more well rounded experience because her life is connected both to other animals and to the humans that were in charge of training her and keeping her safe. The lives and personalities feed off each other in profound ways because their fates are intertwined.

To me this post does not do the book justice, but if you ever decide to read it hopefully you will feel the same way I did. Once you finish reading the book (or even if you don’t read it) I would google the characters in order to learn more about this time in history.

Fun fact: carrier pigeons are different from homing/racing pigeons. A carrier pigeon is bred to be pretty and a homing pigeon is bred to make its way back to a specific spot from hundreds of miles away.

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