Before pigeons were condemned by modern sensibilities as “rats with wings,” they were the unsung foot soldiers of human communication and warfare. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul using pigeons as his emissaries during invasions. Mongol emperor Genghis Khan established pigeon posts across the empire to bridge the vast distances between Asia and eastern Europe.
“Nowadays, people are so down on pigeons,” says Kathleen Rooney, writer, DePaul University English professor, and known pigeon enthusiast. What some may consider dirty or invasive vermin, Rooney finds endearing and worthy of admiration.
“I’ve always loved pigeons, ever since I was a kid. I think it’s because I associate them with cities. As someone who grew up in smaller towns and the suburbs, and never really felt like I belonged in those places . . . anytime I saw a pigeon, I knew I was in a place that I would want to live someday.”
To give these misunderstood avians their proper due, Rooney wrote them a 336-page love letter.
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin Books), Rooney’s fourth novel, soars as a fictionalized account of a major WWI battle, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, in which American forces were trapped behind enemy lines in France and suffered friendly fire. It’s not your typical war novel–half the story is narrated by the real-life British-born homing pigeon, Cher Ami, whose message saved the lives of 194 American soldiers, known as the Lost Battalion.
Cher Ami tells her story 100 years later as a taxidermied specimen at the National Museum of American History’s “Price of Freedom” exhibit. Wry and perceptive, the bird vividly details her upbringing as a racing pigeon, her anguish at the brutality of war, and her brief but critical relationship with the alternate narrator Major Charles Whittlesey, a Harvard-educated lawyer whose leadership during the battle earns him an uneasy status as a war hero.
“The default assumption among many readers is that if something is about animals or has talking animals, it has to be for kids,” Rooney says. The idea of writing from a pigeon’s perspective emerged early on, but she wanted to avoid kitschiness in favor of creating a real, if anthropomorphized, character. “I love fiction as a genre for the way it lets the writer, and eventually the reader, hop across the barrier that is our bodies, and live in the hearts and minds of a different embodied person.”
One of the central tensions that both Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey contend with is the meaningless violence and despair of war–and how being propped up as a hero can be a form of propagandist exploitation. “Our need to fly home pushes through all other concerns–including self-preservation, thus our usefulness on the battlefield,” Cher Ami says in the novel. “It’s braided into the fibers of our muscles and the barbules of our feathers. It gives us our purpose, and therefore our power. It does not, however, make us free.”
Rooney discovered the story of Cher Ami in 2013 while teaching a creative writing class at DePaul called “Drift and Dream: Writer as Urban Walker,” which examines the figure of the flaneur in creative work. “My student, Brian Micic, turned in this poem as an assignment about an old gentleman on a park bench surrounded by pigeons, and he has this throwaway line that said, ‘This was no Cher Ami story (Look it up!).’ He was obviously having fun gently ribbing me for my own motto, so I did look it up.” She’s since visited Cher Ami at her post in the Smithsonian and the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey isn’t Rooney’s first work inspired by real people and places. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk‘s octogenarian protagonist was inspired by the story of 1930s advertising copywriter Margaret Fishback, O, Democracy! draws from Rooney’s experiences working for Senator Dick Durbin, and The Listening Room is a novel about artist Rene Magritte told from the perspective of his wife and Pomeranian dogs.
Rooney says she aims to embody a “people’s history” approach to historical fiction that centers the lives of extraordinary people overlooked by time. “I sort of see myself and my work as the work of a conservationist. I want to make sure that these things I love and find interesting don’t disappear forever.”
Much like all plans this year, the typical book tour and promotion schedule have been upended by the pandemic. Instead of hopping from city to city, Rooney will be appearing at virtual events and signing copies of Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey across town with her new ink stamp of a pigeon carrying a letter.
“The world in which a writer writes their book is never the world into which they release their book,” Rooney says. In this time of wide governmental failure to protect people from COVID-19 and the police, Rooney has found comfort in how the real Major Whittlesey carried his men to safety during that crucial battle, going five days without food or water amidst enemy attacks.
“The label ‘hero’ is such a burden, but I was surprised by the fact that his heroism consisted basically of waiting. What Whittlesey did may have resonance now that it didn’t have when I sold the book to the publisher a year and a half ago. He couldn’t go on the offensive and attack, and he couldn’t really take action to change their situation. He just had to keep everyone as safe as he could.” v