The events that surround Cher Ami and Major Charles Whittlesey during WWI are the ingredients of legends and something worth writing about. Ahem! Both contribute to an outstanding account of heroism that is unique, fascinating, gripping, and authentic to the point where it is impossible to disentangle the weave of fiction from meticulously ordered fact. The story is all the more astonishing when we realise that Cher Ami is a homing pigeon, a female bird with a male name that became recognised for its bravery, determination and valour at a crucial moment in the war. A bird honoured with the Croix de Guerre Medal and by being crudely stuffed and on display in the Smithsonian, for flying through enemy fire to alert the US Army to the location of their Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest. A British bird, with a French name, flying for the Americans.
Cher Ami is one of the hundreds of pigeons carrying messages “from cog to cog in the giant Teutonic machine of war.” Kathleen Rooney has given Cher Ami a voice which while from the perspective of a bird is confused with how humans perceive and interact with the world around them but also gives the bird a human voice that quizzes and draws emotions into life. This is very cleverly delivered and obviously avoids page after page of cooing.
Major Charles Whittlesey (Whit) was a very intelligent man, graduating from Harvard University with a law degree, a confirmed bachelor and now commanding the 308th Regiment along the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The horrors of war are vividly created and it is no place for sentiment. Whit’s first experience of the ‘front’ sets the scene of the horrors awaiting.
“After the woods our good cheer was quelled by the faint first whiff of a real battlefield, a gagging combination of shit and gunpowder, gas and blood, decaying flesh and muddy rot. Though still distant, it was almost unbelievably awful, sending a spark of panic up my spine.”
Trapped in the Argonne Forest, Whit leads his men with distinction as their lives are held so precariously between being discovered by the Germans and being bombed by their own side. Whit has to watch his runners die and their stock of pigeons dwindle until there is only Cher Ami left.
“Her flight gave me a quick thrill of hope, but when she vanished over the ridge, the feeling did as well. We were really down to last things now: last pigeon, last scouts, and soon, perhaps, last bullets and last breaths.”
Cher Ami and Whit alternate their narrative throughout the novel and the two views on a situation are astutely compared and contrasted. The story from pre-war to the aftermath if filled with wonderful sensitivity and emotional impact. As Cher Ami reflects while in the Smithsonian “The Great War cost me a lot, and although it’s not a competition, on this, the eve of my centenary, I can honestly conclude that it cost Whit more.”
Heartbreaking, harrowing, brutal, enduring and indelibly imprinted on our minds, this is a story of great bravery and strength during the worst of times and the depression and anguish remaining when it is all over. I would highly recommend reading this book and would rate it 4.5 stars. I would like to thank Penguin Books and NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC in return for an honest review.