Accidental Critic: Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: A Novel
by Kathleen Rooney
Penguin Books, 2020
Reviewed by Kim Kishbaugh
More than six months into a pandemic isolation we initially hoped would last weeks, it’s hard not to think and speak in war metaphors. Are we losing or winning the battle, are we stuck in a stalemate, is this a war of attrition? Meanwhile, we’re bombarded by natural disasters: wildfires (again) in the West, hurricanes (again) along our coasts.We’re each largely isolated, sheltering in place, with nowhere to go and little idea when help might arrive.
Maybe it’s apt that in the midst of this, Kathleen Rooney’s latest novel should bring us a tale of war. Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey tells the story of a mostly forgotten World War I battle involving what has come to be known as the “Lost Battalion.” Some 700 troops under the command of Major Charles Whittlesey followed orders to advance into a narrow ravine in France’s Argonne Forest, assured that other units were moving up with them. Instead, they quickly found themselves surrounded by German forces and cut off from support. When friendly forces finally found and rescued them from “the Pocket” five days later, fewer than 200 survivors emerged. They owed their lives not only to the rescuing troops but to a carrier pigeon, Cher Ami, who lost an eye and a leg delivering Whittlesey’s last, desperate missive pleading for help.
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey tells this story, and the story of the war, from the perspective of both man and bird. The tale is largely one of shared experiences. Starting well before the war – well, technically starting well after the war, with Cher Ami stuffed and on display in the Smithsonian Museum and Whittlesey walking the streets of New York – Rooney paints the lives of both title characters with striking similarity. Both go enthusiastically to war, both emerge troubled by their war experiences and memories, both bristle a bit at the hero designation, both find and lose their one true loves during the war. Indeed, the two even share a love for the same man, a pigeon handler in the Lost Battalion who is for Whittlesey both friend and unrequited love and for Cher Ami the one human who truly understands her.
The book opens with nothing happening: Cher Ami begins her narration after closing time at the Smithsonian, when even the janitors have gone home. It’s the eve of the 100th anniversary of her ultimate wartime mission, and she is remembering.
Like a life story, the beginning here is mundane. It doesn’t stay that way. Although the action is a bit slow to build, don’t be put off by that. It’s a war tale, after all. Once Cher Ami and Whittlesey find themselves in the thick of battle, I found myself turning page after page needing to know what would come next.
It’s a gripping account. Although we know the outcome in advance, we don’t of course know the details – who will live, who will die, how each soldier will respond. Rooney makes us care about each detail. But even reading the details, we don’t ultimately know all that happened, as Rooney herself tells us in Cher Ami’s voice:
Human language inevitably organizes as it communicates, and thus the hell of the Pocket sounds tidy when I describe it. It wasn’t. Events that my account sets down straight-edged were jagged as they happened. I can list the major episodes. … But these were only incidents, and taken together they fail to capture the quagmire of feeling that was our actual experience of that day.
Ultimately, the details aren’t what matter most. It’s the toll of the war that grips, not just the tale. It’s in between and underneath the episodes and incidents that the true narrative lies. The fighting, the dying, the heroics – these are the backdrop. War is the setting, perhaps the catalyst; it isn’t the point.
Ultimately, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey connects the reader to a shared, universal experience, unbounded even by genus or species. There are connections not just between humans, but with and among birds, across the animal spectrum, and across time. Reading about war might not be a direct route to elevate the spirits during this pandemic, but if you’re yearning for shared, communal experience, it may offer you a different approach. Stories connect us, after all. Stories about connections may drive home the point.
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.