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Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey

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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.

336 pages, Kindle Edition

First published August 11, 2020

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About the author

Kathleen Rooney

31 books1,200 followers
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand.

She is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Her latest collection Where Are the Snows, winner of the XJ Kennedy Prize, is coming out from Texas Review Press in September 2022. She teaches at DePaul and her next novel, From Dust to Stardust, will be published by Lake Union Press in Fall of 2023.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
August 12, 2021
For his heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm. He was returned to the United States and died at Fort Monmouth, N.J. on June 13, 1919, as a result of his wounds. Cher Ami was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931, and received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Pigeon Fanciers in recognition of his extraordinary service during World War I. - from the Smithsonian
…in a contest against passion, truth always makes a poor showing.


Even the few who had come through the incident largely unhurt looked like shades; greeting the new arrivals with yellowed grins and vacant eyes.
Two kinds of heroism are on display in Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. The usual sort is displayed by a homing pigeon, Cher Ami of the title, braving and taking enemy fire to bring news back to base of the dire situation faced by a battalion caught behind enemy lines. The other was the courage Charles Whittlesey, the commander of that battalion, mustered to remain in place when the urge to retreat was almost overwhelming. Movement would have offered no assuredness of survival, and probably would have resulted in annihilation, the other option, surrendering to the surrounding German army, again offered no certainty of survival, but confidently promised the collateral damage of severe disgrace. A very Anthony Fauci decision, selecting the least of the available evils, but Whittlesey chose the one offering the greatest hope for the best results.

Kathleen Rooney and friends - image from her site

This novel is a fictionalized account of a real-world event. Cher Ami is indeed in the Smithsonian. Charles Whittlesey did lead his men in dire circumstances. The Lost Battalion was a major media event in the waning days of World War I.

Cher Ami – image from the Air and Space Museum

News coverage at the time had focused on the Metropolitan Division more than most segments of the Army prior to the event. It was made up primarily of New Yorkers, and thus a large contingent of immigrants, some of whom did not even speak English, many of whom were not yet naturalized citizens, draftees fighting for their home country of choice. So, there was much more news sent home about the 77th Division, of which the battalion was a part, than there might have been had the incident afflicted a less reported-on force. You could read all about the plight of The Lost Battalion in the New York papers, and then across the country. One of the main writers covering the story was a reporter for The New York American, a Hearst newspaper. He had a readership, based to a considerable degree on his sports journalism, but he was more than just a sports writer. You may have heard of him. His name was Damon Runyon.

Damon Runyon - image from FamousBirthdays.com

Whittlesey’s piece of the 77th, part of an Allied offensive into France’s German-occupied Meuse-Argonne Forest in October 1918, did their jobs too well, continuing to advance, even when forces on either side of them had ceased their forward progress, unbeknownst to Whit. It is called a salient when you advance past enemy lines and find yourself surrounded by the enemy on multiple sides. Not a good thing. We get to see Whit’s decisions, and the efforts that had to be made to try to get word back to base, and the herculean task of keeping his soldiers’ spirits up, trying to keep them as safe as possible, countering any enemy moves while meting out diminishing supplies and tamping down those who would welcome capture just to end their awful situation.
Each man was the miserable monarch of a kingdom that squirmed with vermin, one that consisted of the dirt and a bit of sky each one could see from the dirt, of their feet in their boots in the mud—a kingdom indistinguishable from a grave.
But the battle and the heroism displayed is only one part of the story, albeit a compelling one.

Image from Chris Rice Cooper’s blog

The periods portrayed are, like all Gaul, divided into three parts, the lead-up before their engagement in the war, wartime duties, and postwar experiences, including the psychological and political processes and actions that radiated from that Lost Battalion event.

Image from Chris Rice Cooper’s blogspot

This is a tale of two narrators, Charles Whittlesey and the homing pigeon of the title, Cher Ami. Chapters alternate. Do not think that just because we have a pigeon narrating half this book that it is in any way a children’s tale. It most certainly is not. Cher is an amazing character whom Rooney uses to great effect. She has a rich social and emotional life, offers astute observations of human nature and behavior, and teaches us a lot.

Image from Chris Rice Cooper’s blogspot

We meet her (yes, her, Cher was mis-gendered and named as a male, an error that persisted even into her descriptive display at the Smithsonian) in the present day, inhabiting, as she has for a century, a place of honor in the National Museum of American History in DC. It is from this perch that this highly decorated war hero looks back on her life, the events that led up to her heroic act, and her life after she completed her final wartime mission. Whittlesey is no longer with us, stuffed or otherwise, but tells his first-person tale in the present of his actions.

McMurtry was Whittlesy’s second in command and a fascinating character in his own right - Image from Chris Rice Cooper’s blog

The alternating chapters cleverly share opening lines that lead each narrator to offer their cross-species perspectives on similar processes and events. Chapter 1, for example, opens with Monuments matter most to pigeons and soldiers. Cher addresses her long display at the museum, and gives us a look at her life, living and displayed. Whit has become something of a monument himself, widely lauded for his leadership under extreme duress. There is even a film being made of the horror of The Lost Battalion, in which Whit and some of the other survivors play themselves. He would much prefer being able to return to anonymity, particularly as he is a gay man in the Jazz Age, in which finding love on the run was a risky enterprise. And PTSD is never much fun, particularly when tinged with survivor’s guilt, and a feeling that he is nobody’s hero.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Manhattans Upper West Side – image from Wiki - Whit names this as a significant locale for him early in the book

In preparation for the adventure, Rooney shows us the stages Cher and Whit go through to become combat ready. For Cher, it is training to sharpen and strengthen her homing instinct, and she turns out to be a natural, a champion even. We learn a lot about how special pigeons are, what is involved in their training, and a bit of the history of homing pigeons being used in war. Whit’s training may not have involved flapping, but it is no less interesting, seeing how the military encouraged educated sorts to get a taste of military life, before having to sign up for real, a trial subscription, if you will. This was news to me, as was the makeup of this particular division. How Whit grows into his command is beautifully portrayed. We see Whit and Cher both in combat, and we see them both in love, with mirrored romantic interests. We see them both considering the madness of men and how veterans might be used as props for ignoble purposes. We see them both yearning for home, and giving their all.

A particular strength of the novel is pointing out how media influences political, and even military decisions, and how real events can be used by the cynical to support less than laudable aims, why some are hailed as heroes, while others, equally meritorious, are abandoned to a dark fate.

Image from Chris Rice Cooper’s blog

This is an incredibly moving book. I counted nine times in my notes the word “tears.” Have those tissues or hankies locked and loaded. It is rich with new info. Fun to learn of Damon Runyon’s involvement. Rewarding to learn so much about about what makes pigeons so much more than Woody Alan’s memorable “rats with wings” putdown, homing pigeons in particular, news to me, at least, and I expect news to most readers. It was fascinating to learn about military life and recruitment in 1918.

The use of Cher as a narrator was a bold choice, and, IMHO, entirely effective. Well, I did have one gripe re Cher. Rooney stretches her consciousness way too far near the end, as she perceives in the mode of an omniscient narrator things she could have no way of knowing. I am willing to suspend disbelief for the conscious bird, but this was a step too far. The experiences of Cher and Whit may have been personal, but the importance of the issues raised is universal and still with us today. The War to End All Wars did no such thing. But if you are looking for a wonderful read, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey will end your search, at least until you finish reading it.
Battle was said to harden a man—during my youth I’d heard this stated in the same offhand tones used to discuss first Communions and debutante balls—but in my case there had been no hardening, only a constant effort to hold together despite proliferating cracks.

Review posted – August 28, 2020

Publication dates
----------August 11, 2020 - hardcover
----------August 11, 2021 - Trade Paperback

I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley. I was able to find my way to it with no problem at all.

==========In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25%, from 20,000 to 15,000 characters. In order to accommodate the text beyond that I have moved it to the comments section directly below.

Profile Image for Peter.
472 reviews2,555 followers
August 15, 2020
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 was recognised for its bravery, determination and valour at a crucial moment in the war. A bird honoured with the Croix de Guerre Medal 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, now crudely stuffed and on display in the Smithsonian.

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 heroically 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 followed by the depression and anguish 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.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 31 books1,200 followers
May 7, 2020
Not giving your own book five stars would be kind of like not voting for yourself in an election.
Profile Image for Liz.
2,143 reviews2,759 followers
July 5, 2020
I obviously didn’t pay attention when I requested this book from netgalley. But I loved Lilian Boxfish Takes A Walk. Cher Ami is an unusual main character. She is a stuffed homing pigeon who served in WWI and now resides in the Smithsonian along with the stuffed remains of Sergeant Stubby. She earned her place in the Smithsonian for flying through enemy fire to alert the US Army to the location of the Lost Battalion.
We also hear from Major Charles Whittlesey, who commanded the Lost Battalion. The Lost Battalion was part of the last offensive in the Argonne Forest. They were trapped behind enemy lines and suffered friendly fire.
Rooney does a lovely job of weaving historical and scientific facts with the story. She alternates their stories, providing not just the war but the times before and after. Whittlesey, a confirmed bachelor, has to hide his true self. Cher Ami was misidentified as a male pigeon (thus the name). “An English bird with a French name here to fly for the Americans...And your name is masculine, but you’re a hen, unless I miss my guess. Mon Dieu, life in wartime!”
I was surprised to find myself enjoying Cher Ami’s chapters as much as I did. Anthropomorphism is often poorly done and too kitschy. But not here. I enjoyed learning about homing pigeons, about which I knew absolutely nothing. The best historical fiction teaches you something new while providing an excellent story and this did that in spades. Rooney doesn’t spare us at all from the horrors of war. But as harrowing as the war scenes were, in some ways, the aftermath of the war was even worse. Cher Ami and Whittlesey both are used as props for the government’s message and neither are capable of handling the sorrow.
This is beautifully written. Rooney uses one twist of having both Cher Ami and Charles comment on the same bit of conversation or event and providing their own take on it. I loved that sense of deja vu when the words would appear again under the next chapter heading.
Expect some tears, it’s that moving.
My thanks to netgalley and Penguin Books for an advance copy of this book.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews599 followers
December 3, 2020
Update: $1.99 kindle ebook download special - wonderful historical fiction: a great sale price

“It is perhaps unnecessary to say that we pigeons, a species characterized by dramatic individual variation in color and form, find the human preoccupation with small differences in skin color very confounding”.

Homing pigeons played an important role in war. Due to their homing ability, speed and attitude, they were often used as military messengers.
Meet Cher Ami.....
.....a female homing pigeon who had been donated by the pigeon fanciers of Britain for used by the US Army Signal Corps in France during World War I....
.....and had been trained by American pigeoners.
Cher Ami, ( French for ‘dear friend’), was most famous for delivering a message from an encircled battalion despite serious injuries during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October 1918.

A little background history:
The Meuse-Argonne offensive (also known as the Meuse River-Argonne Forest offensive, the Battles of the Meuse-Argonne, and the Meuse-Argonne campaign)....
was a major part of the final allied offensive of WWI that stretched along the entire western front. It was fought from September 26, 1918 until the Armistice of November 11, 1918, a total of 47 days. The Meuse-Argonne offensive was the largest in the United States military history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers. It’s the second deadliest battle in American history, resulting in over 350,000 casualties including 28,000 German lives, 26,277 American lives in an unknown a French lives. U.S. losses were worsened by the inexperience of many of the troops, tactics used during the early phases of the operation and the widespread onset of the global influenza outbreak > The Spanish Flu.

Today..... Cher Ami ( her stuffed body), is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

THIS ‘novel’....by Kathleen Rooney.....( based on a true story), is endearing as can be.
It’s not dry facts. It’s not boring. It’s not weird. It’s not goofy. Rather it’s.....fascinating, educational (all new information to me), sad but interesting.... sad and beautiful....horrifying, but also moving.

I included some basic facts- above- [ thank you Wikipedia]....for those readers who enjoy adding straight basic historical details.
Adding these additional informative details are not necessary......but I enjoyed the creative-imaginable storytelling so much.....I couldn’t resist looking up a few real facts about our star protagonists:

It feels like *Cher Ami* and *Major Whittlesey* are both literally
in the same room - chatting we us - as we become very close friends.

THE VOICE of....BOTH Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey ( who alternated in narrating).... felt very much alive in our hearts.
........ They are ‘both’ TENDER, REAL, SWEET, INFORMATIVE, and KIND....
and very easy to love!

A little more basic facts:
Meet Major Charles Whittlesey....
.....he and more than 550 men we’re trapped in a small depression on the side of the hill behind enemy lines without food or ammunition. They were also beginning to receive friendly fire from allied troops who did not know their location. Surrounded by the Germans, many were killed and wounded and only 194 men were still alive and not captured or wounded by the end of the engagement. Because his runners were consistently intercepted or killed by the Germans, Whittlesey began dispatching Messages by pigeons. Many were wounded.
Cher Ami was dispatched with a note, written on onion paper, in a canister on her left leg.....
“We are along the road parallel [sic] to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it”

As Cher Ami tried to fly back home, The Germans saw her rising out of brush and opened fire. After several seconds, she was shot down but managed to take flight again. She arrived back at her loft at division headquarters. She helped save the lives of 194 survivors. She had been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and had a leg hanging only by a tendon.
Cher Ami became the hero of the 77th Infantry Division. Army medics work to save her life. They were unable to save her leg, so they carved a small wooden one for her. When she recovered enough to travel, then now one legged bird was put on a boat to the United States, with General John J. Pershing ( General of the Armies), seeing her off.

Cher Ami, ( a pigeon), was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal for her heroic service in delivering 12 important messages in Verdun ( a small city in France).
She died in Fort Monmouth New Jersey, on June 13, 1919 from the wounds she received in battle and was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931.

Charles Whittlesey- born January 20, 1884- disappeared November 26, 1921. He was a United States Army Medal of Honor recipient who led the ’Lost Battalion’ in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during WWI. On November 26, 1921, he committed suicide by drowning on route to Havana at age 37.
He attended Williams College and Harvard University, ( where he earned his law degree) ..... and was voted the third brightest man in his class.
Born in Florence, Wisconsin. He moved with his family to Massachusetts as a young boy.

Kathleen Rooney gives us compelling heartfelt depth and human understanding to the reality of history.
Cher Ami was more than just a messenger pigeon, a tool during dangerous flights of war.....more than a stuffed paraphernalia visual behind glass in the Smithsonian.....
she was smart ...had feelings... thoughts... opinions.... and we get to know her through the voice Rooney reveals.
CHER AMI .....from Wright Farm....loves to chatter....she’s a pigeon after my own heart. ( possibility a lesbian too....but I’ll let other readers decide that for themselves). When she was speaking ( ha, called narrating)....I was ‘putty-in-her-feathers’, hanging onto every word she shared)
“Then I ran into a thick pewter fog, as dangerous to homing as was any predator. I had to wait on the roof of a house for an hour, drinking from the wet shingles and thinking how I longed to be home with John and corn, John and peas. When the fog lifted at dusk, I flew on at almost a hundred miles per hour to make up time, but soon night fell, and pigeons can’t fly at night, or rather can’t home. The world pours clues at us, as it always does, but when the sun’s gone, they stop adding up”.

Cher Ami was at first mistaken for a male. Sex in pigeons was not entirely straightforward. If John J. Pershing had been clear from the beginning, Cher Ami would have been Chere Amie.
The external anatomy of pigeons provide few hints of their sex... so it’s mostly behavior that determines their gender.
Cher Ami ‘acted’ liked many males did > she showed affection for other females.
Charles Whittlesey showed affection for other men.
Together these two lovable beings....were both heroic kindred spirits.

I was reminded again about injustice - judgements - about sex and race ...
I was reminded of the brutalities of war - for all species....
mistreatments... and violence.
Cher Ami was wise and sensitive to the world around her....just as Charles Whittlesey was:
She says:
“Throughout the war I noted with disappointment how frequently soldiers would use sex and race to shore up their own fragile concord, as if any acrimony might be smoothed over through agreement that women and darker-complexioned persons are weak, stupid, and unreliable”.

A wonderful pigeon & human story. History comes alive. Memories shared by Cher Ami and her family, parents and siblings ( meet Miss America too), are simply irresistible.
The stories we learn from Charles Whittlesey are engrossing and alluring.

Here’s a little excerpt that gave me pause....and much appreciation for the food I eat here at home.
“To call the shipboard food terrible was to overpraise it. Our meals are prepared by English cooks, committed to safeguarding their reputation for awfulness. Boil potatoes, rice, tapioca, and marmalade— no salt, no sugar, no seasoning of any kind. For lunch that day, we’d had rabbit stew, which tasted as if the cooks had left the fur on. Coffee was served from garbage cans. Seasick man puked sickly over the sides: feeding the fishes, they called it”.

This book filled is a mixture of humanity, history, and endearing storytelling.

Heartfelt ... heartbreaking.... incredibly memorable.

I’ll never forget - either Charles Whittlesey or Cher Ami. They live deeply inside me now....
I morn them both....as I came to truly love them both.

Many thanks to Penguin Group Penguin Books, Netgalley, and Kathleen Rooney
Profile Image for Fran.
661 reviews631 followers
June 3, 2020
"In life I was both a pigeon and a soldier...Pigeons cannot fight. Yet I was once as well known...as any human hero of what was then called the Great War...I am enshrined, stuffed, a piece of mediocre taxidermy...in the Smithsonian...History buffs tell "the tale of my heroism..." "During that big war in France, some American soldiers got trapped in enemy territory...a unit that would soon be known throughout the world as part of the Lost Battalion...under the command of newly minted Major Charles White Whittlesey".

"I was born into a family of achievers...Dad was famous...for his record race times...Mum...for her ability to traverse prodigious distances without getting tired". Mistakenly thought to be a cock, I was named Cher Ami. "I first became aware of my extraordinary capabilities for navigation and travel...accompanied by...[a] need to fly home...thus [my] usefulness on the battlefield". In the Spring of 1918, I was sent to France to be used as a messenger for the American Army.

Charles White Whittlesey, aka Whit, was a Wall Street lawyer. Perhaps he would "soldier for democracy, a desire to unite with other men in common purpose". Whit started as a volunteer, eventually deciding to enlist, thus serving as a commissioned officer. "In short order, I stowed my profound uncertainty as an untested officer and entered territory familiar from my student days: the domain of the raconteur...If you've got your wit, then you've got your wits, and men know they can follow you without fear".

On October 2, 1918, the 308th Regiment, under the command of Major Whittlesey, left the trenches advancing into the Argonne Forest. The Lost Battalion, was so named because "...it got cut off from the rest of the Allied Forces...we had trapped ourselves...our success was failure...without support we couldn't move forward, and without guidance we couldn't fall back...by that afternoon, [Cher Ami] was the last pigeon, all others having been dispatched with...urgent messages".

In alternate chapters, Cher Ami and Whit share their stories. Cher Ami describes her war preparedness through compassionate handling by pigeoneers Private Cavanaugh and Corporal Gault. Others describe Whit, "Whit...was a lamb who fought like a lion". War changed everything!

"Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey" by Kathleen Rooney was not the read I expected. It was so much more. The soldiers and homer pigeons were masterfully fleshed out. I was saddened by the words, "Hail and farewell, brother. I salute you, and good-bye". How were those returning from the front able to fully embrace life after their harrowing experiences? A heartfelt, emotional tome I highly recommend.

Thank you Penguin Books and Net Galley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Carolyn Walsh .
1,541 reviews595 followers
September 23, 2020
There is much to be admired in this memorable and informative story based on historical fact. Vivid descriptions of the and brutality which befell the Lost Battalion in WW1 were highly disturbing. The futility of war was acknowledged. The Great War was supposedly fought to end all wars and save democracy, but the conclusion was that greed was the predominant motive. We read about humanity's deep regard for other humans and animals, but also shocking mistreatment. In this novel, both human and animal war heroes were used and abused as symbols for propaganda. This was a harrowing, moving tale of the horrors of war.

This was a thoroughly researched book where it was difficult to separate fact from fiction Much information about the war and the Lost Battalion is available on the internet. Actual photos of Major Whittlesey were easy to find and also ones purported to be of Cher Ami during her lifetime, as well as those of her taxidermied form now displayed at the Smithsonian.

I found the structure of the book unusual and slow-moving at first. Chapters alternated between Major Whittlesey narrating his thoughts and observations before, during and in the aftermath of WW1, and Cher Ami while in her stuffed body at the museum reminiscing about her training, friendships, and participation in the Great War one-hundred years earlier. Once I got used to the format, it became a very compelling and emotional read. I admired the writing and the way this heart-wrenching story unfolded.

Major Whittlesey was a Harvard educated Wall Street lawyer with a secret life. He had never been tested in battle, but after army training found himself as an officer in charge of inexperienced men fighting the Germans in France.

Cher Ami was a homing pigeon trained in England. She was thought to be a male from observations of her behaviour as she preferred to enjoy the company of othr female pigeons. Cher Ami, along with other homing pigeons were attached to the American army and sent to France. Their work was to carry messages during the war, and they were further trained by the army to refine their skills.

Following orders, Major Whittlesey's group of 550 men became separated from the main part of the army. They became trapped behind enemy lines in Argonne Forest and were unable to proceed or retreat. Many died or were mutilated from bombardment, grenades and rifle fire by the Germans.
They had few military supplies, food and water. The mud and stench from the site became unbearable.
Those not killed outright were dying from their wound infections or the flu. The sick and dead were strewn everywhere in the mud. The worst was yet to come. They came under 'friendly fire' by the larger American unit from which they had become lost.

Major Whittlesey did his best to boost morale and was reported to be heroic in his command, but he always carried much guilt for the injuries and death of so many of his soldiers. Men who were runners charged with delivering messages had been killed, and the remaining soldiers of the Lost Battalion believed they would die soon.

Their last hope was for a pigeon to deliver a message to the Americans to stop firing their weapons at them and come rescue them. Their homing pigeons carrying messages had been shot down one by one by the Germans. The last to fly was Cher Ami. This brave and determined pigeon was known for her speed over long flights. Not long into her flight, she was shot in her chest, lost an eye, and her leg with the message attached was hanging only by a tendon. She kept flying despite her terrible injuries and reached her destination. The Lost Battalion was rescued and Major Whittlesey ( now a Colonel), marched out with 194 men to a hero's welcome. He was the recipient of the US Medal of Honour.

Cher Ami was cared for by a vet. The wound on her body was stitched and her leg amputated. She was blind in one eye. A wooden leg was carved especially for her. She convalesced on the Riviera among injured birds from other army units and she learned to fly again but was always in pain. Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her valour and survived a year after her injuries. She and Major Whittlesey were kept busy meeting the public and appearing at various army functions instead of having time needed to rest and recover from their war experiences. Whittlesey's life ended after a couple of years of depression.

This is a story I will long remember.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,299 reviews450 followers
Shelved as 'don-t-want-to-finish'
September 16, 2020
Giving up on this at page 127. I gave it a fair chance, and I really wanted to like it much more but it has become an exercise in boredom. Both the chapters narrated by the pigeon and the Major seemed to be reasons to feed newspaper accounts and historical facts to the reader, without making me care about either one of them. And Cher Ami seemed to have a real understanding of both literature and history, which seemed a little strange for a homing pigeon. I know lots of people loved this, I'm just not one of them.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,177 reviews539 followers
July 9, 2020
World War I. The Great War.

The book opens with a heavily laden first sentence: Monuments matter most to pigeons and soldiers.

A gay homing pigeon called, Cher Ami, was also a soldier.

October 14th, 1918, Cher Ami saved the lives of a battalion of lost American soldiers in the French woods and got stuffed, yes, wood-stuffed and wire-skeletoned, to be exhibit as 'a piece of mediocre taxidermy, collecting dust in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. The museum was, according to Cher Ami, the grandmother's attic of the entire country. In the war logs of history, she was also listed as National Union of Racing Pigeons Number 615. Cher Ami preferred her "Dear Friend" name, though. It gave her an almost human soul with human thoughts and feelings. It enabled her to tell her story in human words. Imagine: A British bird, awarded a French Croix de Guerre for saving the lives of American soldiers. And imagine more to be exhibited and described as a cock bird by all and sundry. It hurts. It really hurts. She was a hen. A non-egg-laying hen as it was, but still a hen. Sigh.

She never became a sergeant, like Stubby, her fellow taxidermied war hero dog who shared her exhibit. A lifetime member of the Red Cross, awarded a gold medal--yes!--by General John J. Pershing. And also her best buddy for a hundred years in their Smithsonian glory.

Mon Cheri felt it was time to tell her story. It really was time. Her centennial celebration of being an exhibit with a story. And she had deep feelings for her cherished commander, Charles Whittlesey: Galloping Charlie, or Wit to his friend Bill Cavanaugh, Cher Ami's beloved pigeon master. Charles Whittlesey was also known as 'GO To Hell Whittlesey', heroic commander of the Lost Battalion.

This is the story of a silver-meddled pigeon and a multi-awarded hero. The story of The Lost Battalion in the Argonne forests of the Meuse-region of France in September 1918.(From Wikipedia):Of the original 554 troops involved in the advance, 107 had been killed, 63 were missing and 190 were wounded. Only 194 were able to walk out of the ravine..

Whittlesey was their commander. He was an unlikely warrior, who (privately)regarded guns as toys, as much for grown men as for boys. Yet, there he was, performing his duty to become a hero; as one of the regular guys, perfect for combat: those with balls in their hands, who were always up for a beer, crude and violent, always up for fraternity pranks, and got shot and gassed and blown to pieces in wars. And he, good-humorlessly called "Count" and "Chick", the gentleman idealist, pacifist, poet, the accomplished lawyer in his other life, who had a wit as keen as a safety blade, was their leader in this Great War. Other men may thrill to the sight of Old Glory rippling in the breeze, but for me the library(the warehouse of wisdom) was a better symbol of what I had taken up arms to defend.

In his younger days, after the death of his beloved sister Annie, his parents and teachers, not understanding his grief, (paraphrasing)joked that he was a pint-sized Romeo pining for his crushes. But when Whittelsey imagined himself as a Romeo, it was Mercutious, not Juliet, for whom he was yearning.

Animals and humans at war. The Great War. Based on a true story, as confirmed by Wikepdia.
Charles White Whittlesey was born in Florence, Wisconsin, where his father worked as a logger, and he attended school in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He moved with his family in 1894 to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he graduated from Pittsfield High School in the class of 1901. He enrolled at Williams College, where he was a member of St. Anthony Hall, graduating in 1905. He was voted the "third-brightest man" in his class, and because of his aristocratic manner was nicknamed "Count." He earned a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1908. Soon after graduating he formed a law partnership with his Williams classmate J. Bayard Pruyn in New York City. Influenced by his friend and roommate at Williams, Max Eastman, Whittlesey spent several years as a member of the American Socialist Party before resigning his membership in disgust over what he viewed as the movement's increasing extremism.
This novel is a never-ending experience of war in its brutal severity. The historic detail might have perhaps overstayed its welcome, and became longwinded, but the overall story,written from a unique postmodern angle, was compelling enough. Who would consider writing a novel with a pigeon(with a poetic sense of humor) as one of the two protagonists?

In historical fiction, there is a silent agreement between author and reader that the hard physical battle of the characters in the plot will become the emotional turmoil of the reader in translation. No compromises. No escape. It's the deal. The survivors of both battles will walk away with their hearts ripped out. This novel is no exception.

The author has an immense talent for storytelling.

After closing the novel, I was thinking about the first sentence again: Monuments matter most to pigeons and soldiers. I'm still thinking about this metaphor, or was it a prophecy? It's a mouthful. And very sad, if you think about it.

Thanks to Penguin Books, Kathleen Rooney and Netgalley for the ARC.
Profile Image for Judith E.
569 reviews194 followers
September 9, 2020
The gruesome WWI battle in France’s Meuse-Argonne Forest is told through the voices of the heroic homing pigeon, Cher Ami, and the Gary Cooper-like U.S. Army officer, Charles Whittlesey. The recounting is heavy on battle scenes, but the importance of carrier pigeons used for communication is a parallel thread.

The subject matter is not light, unlike the storytelling, and it’s recommended for those that like their history lesson with a spoonful of sugar.
Profile Image for Marilyn.
855 reviews276 followers
October 2, 2020
I was excited to read Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney after I read a few positive and glowing reviews by friends on goodreads. My local library was able to provide a copy for me to read. I had read another book a year or two ago about homing pigeons and The Great War so I was excited to read this one. Although the two books had similar settings and both explored the human connection with homing pigeons the plots and outcomes were quite different.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey was a character driven book. The chapters alternated between Cher Ami’s story and that of Charles Whittlesey. Cher Ami was a blue homing pigeon, born in 1916, mistaken as a male pigeon. She was born on a farm in the Cotswolds and was cared for and trained by John. Charles Whittlesey was born on January 20, 1884 and grew up in Wisconsin for the first ten years of his life. He lost his older brother early in life and his sister Annie when she was eight years old. Charles’s family moved back east after Annie’s death. Charles always had a hard time connecting with his father and never felt like he had his approval or respect. He went on to graduate from Williams College and received his law degree from Harvard. Ultimately, Charles and his best friend formed a law partnership together. Charles chose to keep his sexual preferences private. Then the sinking of the Lusitania occurred. By the summer of 1916, Charles decided to train as a soldier for the United States Army as the United States entered the war.

Cher Ami and Major Charles Whittlesey met in the Meuse-Argonne Forest in France that came to be called “The Pocket”. Neither Charles Whittlesey nor Cher Ami would have ever realized how each would come to rely on one another when they first met. Both, the never tiring bravery of both bird and officer and their unrelenting determination would help save over two hundred soldiers from “The Lost Battalion”. The battle left lasting effects and impressions, both physically and emotionally, on both Charles and Cher Ami and many of the surviving soldiers.

Upon the conclusion of the war, the public demanded many appearances and pushed many unwanted obligations on both Cher Ami and Charles. They both had a hard time saying no to these obligations and they became more and more stressful as time went by. Charles Whittlesey had a very hard time accepting this public spotlight as he was forced to accept the role as “war hero”. Cher Ami suffered many wounds as she carried the message from “The Lost Battalion” that would ultimately save them. Both Charles Whittlesey and Cher Ami were real heroes in the Great War but few, including myself, had ever heard of either one of them, their bravery, or the battle they fought. Both were highly decorated and received medals for their bravery.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney was a brilliant and well researched historical fiction book. She told their stories, recaptured their brave acts, and shared the consequences those brave acts had on each of them. I highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Lorna.
719 reviews418 followers
June 23, 2020
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is the latest historical fiction offering by Kathleen Rooney based on the true story of five-hundred-fifty infantrymen cut off from their regiment and surrounded by the Germans during five days of fighting in the Argonne Forest in the early fall of 1918 under the orders of General Pershing. Major Whittlesey, a New England Yankee educated at Williams College, a Harvard Law School graduate and a Wall Street lawyer before taking the Army's reserve officer's refresher course when the war broke out was joined by his fellow battalion commander, Major George McMurtry, a Wall Street lawyer as well. As these infantrymen were surrounded and besieged by the German Army, it was important to get word out that the soldiers in the "Lost Battalion" were alive and in need of assistance. The last carrier pigeon charged with this mission was Cher Ami. Although she was hit and wounded by enemy fire, she prevailed. Cher Ami to this day is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Kathleen Rooney's historical fiction narrative is told in alternate chapters by the homing pigeon Cher Ami and battalion commander Major Charles Whittlesey. This unique perspective of this tragic and unfortunate aspect of the Great War is narrated in the voices of Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey as this piece of history comes to life. I will certainly not forget Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey any time soon.

A special thanks to Penguin Books, Kathleen Rooney and Amanda for providing me with an advance reader's copy.
Profile Image for Celia.
1,232 reviews165 followers
September 17, 2020
Update: My book club is zooming with Kathleen (the author) on Sep 17. Stay tuned!!

This a beautifully written story told by a pigeon and a man. The setting is WWI, immediately before, and the period of three years after.

Cher Ami - the pigeon. Trained to be a homer (homing pigeon). Unselfishly donated to help in the war cause as a messenger. Cher Ami is one of the best homers and had won many prizes in competitions before being donated to the war cause. Her voice is fresh and lovable. I fell in love with this bird.

Charles Whittlesey - a lawyer before the war. Trained first as a private and again as an officer at Plattsburgh. Fought in WWI France. He was the commander of The Lost Battalion. The Lost Battalion is the name given to 9 companies of the 77th Division who were isolated for a week in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. His story is touching. I fell in love with Major Whittlesey too.

The story is roughly broken down into three segments: lives of both before the war, the scenes during the war, and the effects on all doughboys and doughpigeons after the war is over. The book starts out as light and fun, but increases in its seriousness as the book progresses. Be prepared for this change in tone.

I was deeply touched by this book, its historic events and the poetic prose Rooney used to describe the events and the thoughts of the two main characters. I will not forget the effect of this book on me for a long time to come.

This is my second Rooney. I read Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and LOVED it.
Next I will have to read some of Rooney's poetry. What a talented gal!!

5 stars
Profile Image for Karen R.
847 reviews498 followers
August 14, 2020
I was first drawn to this book when I learned that a pigeon was one of two main characters. How odd I thought. Getting into the head of a homing pigeon? Ok, I’ll bite. Glad I did as this book is now on my list of top books for 2020. It is unique and creative with colorfully descriptive writing.

How valuable these pigeons would become in WWI, serving as a valuable means of communication between HQ and the ground troops. Cher Ami became known as the most famous carrier pigeon of the war. Seeing things through her eyes was mesmerizing. Cher Ami’s other half, Major Charles Whittlesey, leader and war hero who would go on to receive the Medal of Honor, was another star. His story is richly detailed by author Rooney.

There is so much to love here and I highlighted numerous passages to reflect upon later. It is a remarkable book and I walked away feeling more knowledgeable of an important piece of history.
Profile Image for Becky.
624 reviews109 followers
June 24, 2020
I loved loved loved this book!! The first few pages had me scratching my head in wonder & I thought, how am I going to continue reading a book that is partially told by a pigeon!! But continue I did & said pigeon, Cher Ami, is now one of my favorite literary characters.

An historical fiction based on real events, this book was told in alternating chapters by Cher Ami & Charles ( Major Whittlesey). Much of the story is based around a real WWI battle & we get a literal "bird's eye view" of things from Cher Ami & also with the gentlemanly Major, a quiet, stoic man & reluctant hero.

I was unaware of the part which homing/carrier pigeons played in the war & I loved learning about their lives prior to the war, as well as what they did for the troops during the war.

As far as Charles, he was an intelligent, thoughtful man who also happened to be carrying a secret with him all through his life. His role over his men during a very difficult battle had him reflecting & showed the character of a man & over time, the toll it took on him & his troops.

I know Kathleen Rooney had to have researched for a long time to write this book. Not written in a dry, factual way but told in an interesting & at times, a lighthearted way.

I loved her book , Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk & in this same vein, there was an oldness, gentle style of writing. The city streets in the early 1900's & the farms & battlefields.

Thank you Penguin Books & Net Galley for this invite to read this wonderful book & of course....Thank you Kathleen Rooney !!
Profile Image for Virginia.
178 reviews17 followers
May 19, 2020
If I had to summarize this book in two words, it would be "heartbreakingly charming." Those aren't necessarily words you see together, but it captures this book better than anything else I can think of.

The story is split into two narratives. The first it from Cher Ami's perspective, reflecting on her life up until now, where she sits in a Smithsonian exhibit. The other is Major Whittlesey as he reflects on life before, during, and after WWI. While their stores carry the same major plot points, their narratives provide different looks at The Great War. The stories lead them to a group that will eventually be known as The Lost Battalion, a group of soldiers who, led by Whittlesey, were accidentally separated from the US Army and surround by Germans. By all accounts, they should not have survived were it not for a well-bred carrier pigeon (Cher Ami) and their leader (Whittlesey). They are so much more than that one event though and the book captures it all well with elegance and charm. However, it's a story about WWI so it wouldn't be a spoiler for me to tell you that not everyone gets a happy ending.

I don't know if every character is based off a historic figure, but I'm not sure it matters as the book is meant to portray the reality of fighting in The Great War without being a history book trying to teach you a lesson. The characters are all very lively which made me instantly connect with them despite knowing their fate. Rooney creates incredible scenes for our characters to move through with some that made me very grateful to sit on my comfy couch. It isn't all doom and gloom though. At the heart of this book is love -- love for country, family, and the ones who really know you the best. There's charm too as these characters try to find the silver linings in every grey cloud and soldiers try to come with ways to make each other smile while caked in mud.

If you loved watching Band of Brothers or War House, you will definitely love this book. Anyone who likes historical fiction stories that shine beauty in the darkest of moments or anyone looking for hope, will find something to enjoy in these pages. I'd also recommend it to anyone interested in WWI. It wasn't a war taught very much in US schools and I think books like this one help give an idea of what it may have been like.

**Read thanks to an ARC from Penguin Books**
Profile Image for Mollie.
617 reviews5 followers
June 30, 2022
I picked up this book because it was a WWI story, which is not often covered in literature. The premise and true story behind it is fascinating. I suffered through half of it though, because...(come in closer...no closer, I want to whisper...it’s so embarrassing...I don’t even know if I can say it...shhhhhh)...it’s told by a dead pigeon. Like really. The narration switches between the major who was a part of this incredible battle where his whole battalion was lost, and the homing pigeon who carried the message that saved him and is now stuffed and in the Smithsonian. Arg, because I had to actually write that, I’m reducing to 2 stars. It was SUCH a good backstory, and Kathleen Rooney is SUCH a good writer, that I feel bad taking it down to that level. But I just couldn’t get on board with the dead pigeon perspective...(hahahaha how is that a thing??)...like when she was talking to her fellow pigeon comrades about battle, and philosophizing about human war and animal abuses, and then especially when she was falling in love with another pigeon, Baby Mine, and then by the end she is kissing her and I wanted to THROW THE BOOK ACROSS THE ROOM. I mean, why does a dead stuffed pigeon need a love story??? Okay, so, I appreciate the knowledge I gained about homing pigeons and how they are able to fly hundreds of miles to “home” because of instinct, because, how cool. But I didn’t need the dead stuffed pigeon’s perspective to appreciate it.
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,411 reviews490 followers
July 23, 2020
This is a history based on actual events like no other with dual protagonists/narrators like no others, an examination of courage and grief that goes straight to the heart.

The intervening years have softened the horrors of the First World War, presenting it as a "jolly adventure" in contrast to its reality. We see this "...vast obscenity that was the Great War" through the experiences of Major Wittingsley as he rallies his men of the Lost Batallion in an attempt to maintain standards under impossible conditions, even to being fired upon by friendly fire. As survival appears more and more unfeasible, the final hope rides on the wings of Cher Ami, the prescient and impossibly brave pigeon who narrates her side of the story from her current roost on display at the Smithsonian. Yes, she's really there.

Kathleen Rooney's interest in uncliched character studies was evident in her previous novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, which I loved a few years ago. With this novel, she breathes life into her two unlikely narrators. I was reminded of Watership Down in that I never doubted for a minute Cher Ami's side of the story. For his part, Major Whittlesey's struggles rang true, rendering his choices understandable. Rooney writes with the sensibility of a poet, with some truly lovely prose ("...I was still able to detect the smell of white roses at the edge of happiness.") These two kindred souls would even echo one another in mirrored language. On top of this, the cover is a true work of art, evocative and haunting. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Linda.
1,981 reviews2 followers
May 26, 2021
I bought this nook, line, and blinker. Told alternately by a homing pigeon whose gender was misidentified and a tall, intelligent lawyer who becomes a major during WW I. Their story is the story of the "Lost Battalion" caught behind German lines while experiencing "friendly" fire.
Smart, intelligent, Kathleen Rooney knows how to weave a story so tightly, it lassoes the reader before she sees the tether coming.

The only problem with finish this ARC prepublication is how long will I have to wait for Kathleen's next book?
Profile Image for Lynne.
610 reviews59 followers
July 20, 2020
Such an amazing perspective of WW I. I will not describe the storyline because it’s so unusual you may not be able to envision how it could be good. But it is! Very well written with a lot of new to me information woven throughout. The writing is so good that we are easily able to feel like we are at the scene. Definitely read this, you will be glad you did. Thank you to Amanda from Penguin for providing the ARC. Opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Kate.
851 reviews54 followers
June 9, 2020
Thank you to Penguin Random House and Netgalley for the opportunity to read Kathleen Rooney's new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Told in alternating chapters by two World War I heroes, this historical novel completely beguiled me. Cher Ami was a female homing pigeon, misnamed for a male who flew important messages between the American troops in France. In October of 1918, she helped save the Lost Battalion which was completely surrounded by German troops and in grave danger of being thoroughly wiped out. Major Charles Whittlesey was a New York attorney from a white shoe law firm who voluntarily entered the army as a Captain and was commander of the77th Division of the first Battalion, which became the Lost Battalion. Whittlesey excelled at managing his troops and while the Battalion lost a large number of men, many of his troops were able to walk out of the "Pocket" were they were pinned down. Kathleen Rooney writes beautifully descriptive sentences and while this book is at times charming, it is a story of war and she does not shy away from difficult details. I came into this story knowing nothing of the characters or their situations ( I had heard of the Lost Battalion but knew none of the details) and reading Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey reminded me how well written historical fiction both entertains and teaches.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,691 reviews26 followers
August 21, 2020
This is a story of World War I told through the eyes of American soldier Major Whittlesey, and English pigeon Cher Ami. It is a compelling story of a war that many Americans know relatively little about. We were late entering the war in April, 1917.It was a particularly brutal war with 9.7 military and 10 million civilian deaths.

Cher Ami , the homing pigeon, has been memorialized in Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (https://www.si.edu/object/nmah_425415). It is my favorite of the many museums in the system, because of the diversity of exhibits which include the numerous racial and ethnic groups that make up our history. Homing pigeons were essential to communication during the war when radio communication was in its infancy, and of limited range.

Whittlesey is introduced in the post-war years. He is suffering physically and psychologically. His lungs have been permanently damaged by the chemical weapons used, most notably mustard gas. Psychologically, the scars of battle, and seeing so many of the men under his command killed and maimed, were not always taken in account. Charles Whittlesey, a native of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a graduate of Harvard Law School, he left his law practice when placed on active duty in 2017. He was awarded a Medal of Honor by the U.S. Army, when he was discharged in 2018. In this novel, Whittlesey has a secret, his attraction to men.

Alternating chapters are told by Cher Ami and Whittlesey that describe the battlefield in detail. Whittlesea’s battalion is trapped behind enemy lines, and Cher Ami is credited with helping save them. This isn’t a spoiler as we know at the very beginning of the novel about the fates of each of the two characters. Having a pigeon narrate half of the story calls for quite a lot of anthropomorphism. This, at times, was over the top. But this is a compelling true story of a war that Americans know too little about and well worth reading.

I listened to the audiobook, but that edition wasn't an option. Loved it. This was a 4.5 star read for me.
Profile Image for Brenda.
137 reviews23 followers
January 12, 2021
First book of the year and it is a DNF. Not a great way to start the year. I thought I would like this book. I thought the premise was a clever way to tell the story. I like history so was interested in learning about the Lost Battalion. But the author introduced the story by writing about sexual identity (both pigeon and man). Do I need to know how he learned to cruise for a one night stand? Does it matter that the sex of Cher Ami was misidentified?

I thought perhaps I was missing something and kept listening (the narrators were good) but the story was just boring. To tell the truth there wasn’t a story just bits of facts strung together. The sad thing is that there truly is a story to be told, it just isn’t in this book. I’ll have to look elsewhere.
Profile Image for Leona.
1,731 reviews18 followers
July 14, 2021
ok, I'm not sure quite what to say about this book. I'm ambivalent, but glad I read it because:

1) I learned a tremendous amount about WWI. Unfortunately, it seems we had a bunch of incompetent generals and consequently there was significant and needless loss of life.
2) I liked the alternating view between Major Whittlesey and Cher Ami; yes, a stuffed pigeon in the Smithsonian who lived her life mistaken for a male rather than the charming female that she was.
3) The author has a unique writing style with powerful sentences which made me pause to think and reflect on war, life and what matters most.


- Those powerful sentences were sometimes lost in some long-winded narration.
- The book dragged in places and I can understand why some readers abandoned it. I was tempted to do so myself, but decided to plug along.
- I enjoy books that grab me from the first page and hold me till the very end. This one didn't do that.
- There isn't anything uplifting in the story- it is actually quite depressing. .

I believe the reviews are stellar because the story of a botched up WWI execution, caused by egocentric generals, is very compelling and the narration from a pigeon was unique and very well done.
Profile Image for Toni.
659 reviews203 followers
August 10, 2020
This beautifully written book is authored by a rising star of storytelling! Several years ago, Kathleen Rooney gave us the unique book of historical fiction: “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” based on a real woman in retail advertising for Macy*s, in New York City. Currently, Ms. Rooney takes us back to 1918 and actual events that occurred in France during WWI. She retells the story about two, medal-winning war heroes. However, she writes as if they are telling their own stories, in alternating chapters, from their Point of View (POV).

We have read many books like this which is common in historical fiction, when our subjects are no longer with us. We have plays, movies, and even television series presented so realistically, it is as if we are watching history in real time.

This book is no different; we imagine these two heroes are still alive and are writing their stories just after the end of the war. What is a little unique is that Ms. Rooney has given voice to the decorated war hero, Cher Ami, a proud, yet humble homing pigeon, Cher Ami was actually a British racing pigeon, donated to France as a messenger, or homing pigeon, for the war effort. (Cher Ami was misidentified as a male, specifically a, Blue Check cock; The taxidermist who prepared animals and birds for the Smithsonian, discovered she was a hen! To save the expense of changing name plates they left her ID as it was.) I love that little fact.

Now, before you get your feathers all ruffled, remember we have many books narrated from an animals POV. To just name a few: “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein, “Call of the Wild” by Jack London, “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell, and “A Dog’s Life” by Ann M. Martin, Etcetera. Cher Ami is no different. Major Charles Whittlesey recounts his story as the Battalion Commander as well.

The facts of their event in history are well documented: during WWI, in October 1918, the 77th Division became trapped in an area in France of the Meuse Region, in the Argonne Forest. They became know as the, ‘Lost Battalion.’ They were surrounded by Germans and the Allied troops did not know their location. They tried sending runners and many pigeons to inform the Allied Forces of their location, to no avail. Finally, with one pigeon left, the brave Cher Ami, she flew out with the message in a cannister attached to her leg. She was shot in the chest, one leg was hanging by a tendon, and she lost an eye, but she flew twenty-five miles to deliver the message to headquarters. She was a hero, awarded medals, and is displayed in the Smithsonian to this day. Her humble life story, as imagined by Kathleen Rooney, is inspiring.

Major Charles Whittlesey, born in Wisconsin, moved with his family to Massachusetts and graduated Green Bay high school in 1901, college in 1905, and Harvard Law School in 1908. He and a former classmate ran a successful law practice in New York City. He was the last person any of his friends would predict of enlisting to join the fighting in France. Major Whittlesey’s was an intelligent, capable, and thoughtful man. He managed his troops well but always felt he failed his men in the Lost Battalion even though he was regarded as a war hero by everyone.

Ms. Rooney tells their story from their beginnings, background, and families. She does not disguise the horror of war but is compassionate and heartfelt with this story in our history. This book is brilliant, please do not miss it. Kathleen Rooney is an author to keep your eye on!

Thank you Netgalley, Penguin Random House, and Kathleen Rooney

Profile Image for Pamela.
834 reviews7 followers
July 26, 2020
This story has two narrators. Cher Ami is a homing pigeon serving with the US Army in the last battle of WWI, who was instrumental in saving the lives of 194 men of the “Lost Battalion” as she carried a message from the site the men were under fire to the allied command 25 miles away in 25 minutes. When she arrived, she’d been shot in the breast, lost an eye, and one of her legs was destroyed. She died several days later from her wounds. She was treated as a fallen hero, awarded medals, and is now ensconced in the Smithsonian Institution albeit stuffed.

The other narrator is Charles Whittlesey, the commander of the battalion under siege by Germans and trapped in a small depression on the side of a mountain. He lost 356 men to the German artillery and never recovered from the ordeal. He, too, was awarded a medal, the Medal of Honor from the US.

Rooney has written a book using historical facts wrapped up and immersed in a complex tale of courage and betrayal during war time. She has also used two real heroes as her narrators. While the setting, the time leading up to WWI and the war itself, is not unique, the characters are. They are both so well drawn that you will forget Cher Ami is a dead pigeon and that Charles’ demons from the war were added to his personal demons.

The author gets inside the head of Cher Ami and uses her to act as a foil to Charles’ angst and guilt. Her perceptions of human behavior are insightful and will make you think about the truths she tells us. You’ll undoubtedly will think of Cher Ami long after you put the book on a shelf.

If you like your historical novels based on a little-known fact with major consequences, with characters who are brought back to life, and that is so well written you’ll be hard pressed to set the book down, then this is most certainly the book for you.

My thanks to Penguin Books and Edelweiss for an eARC.
75 reviews8 followers
August 8, 2020
I adored Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of Kathleen Rooney's newest book.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is, as expected from Rooney, a vivid and unique spin on historical fiction. She writes an intimate and inspiring tale of two historical figures from WW I, one of whom happens to be a bird.

This was a beautifully written book illustrating the follies and the aftermath of war. I fell in love with Cher Ami and Whit and know that their characters will stay with me. It was a treasure of a read!
Profile Image for Kathy.
3,421 reviews190 followers
December 4, 2020
A very different tale of WWI action featuring one of the homing pigeons (Cher Ami) deployed by United States Air Force and a leader of a lost battalion, Major Charles Whittlesey. We meet Whittlesey in his youth before signing up for service and get to know his family and educational background. The two main characters "meet" on their journey to France's Meuse-Argonne Forest where much is lost in a bitter struggle.
Have I ever read a story with a talking pigeon before? Nope. This is a moving story full of grief, struggle and compassion.

Library Loan
Profile Image for Alyssa Gonzales.
78 reviews2 followers
August 4, 2021
4.5 I LOVED Cher ami and his one eye and leg! I was all for just Cher ami’s storyline until towards the time major whittlesey went to war and I started to like his storyline as well. Liked the way the story was told from both perspectives of a war pigeon and solider. I went through the whole book thinking this was a fiction book but nope they were REAL person and pigeon.

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