By Michael Welch
Great historical fiction reaches beyond the era it explores to tell truths about our current moment. Kathleen Rooney achieves this in just the opening sentence of her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, as she writes “monuments matter most to pigeons and soldiers.” Her story follows Charles Whittlesey and homing pigeon Cher Ami, two heroes of the lionized Lost Battalion of World War I, but the ways in which America transforms them from soldiers to symbols perfectly speaks to our time, when we’re rightly reconsidering who, how, and why we choose to memorialize certain figures from our past.
Rooney brings history to life without becoming beholden to its flawed narratives. Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is a war novel filled with tenderness, a love story marked by mankind’s brutality. And it digs deeper and soars higher than anything else you’ll read all year.
I spoke with Rooney about animal narrators, creativity in the research process, and fiction’s role in correcting our historical record.
The novel is told through the perspectives of two characters, a homing pigeon named Cher Ami and an American soldier, Charles Whittlesey, whose lives are intertwined by their time in the Lost Battalion of World War I. I’d love to hear how you developed these two narrators—which came first and how you saw them fitting together as you wrote.
I knew very early on that I wanted this book to be an alternating point of view novel. I had never written an alternating point of view book before but I always kind of enjoy when authors can pull that off. So I think very preliminarily as I was in the research stages, I decided that Cher Ami was a really complicated character and so was Charles Whittlesey, and because World War I is so familiar and so written about, there’s such a long body of research and writing and film and song about this conflict, I didn’t want to contribute something redundant. You know, I’m not an originality fetishist, but I did want to give some kind of angle that hadn’t been done to death.
So I knew early on that I kind of wanted to develop both of these. It’s a pun that begs to be made so forgive me, but this bird’s eye view of the war is one I hadn’t seen, and I’m kind of a World War I obsessive. And of course you could argue that because it was the first war in which aerial fighting played a significant role there is a metaphorical bird’s eye view, but I couldn’t think of anything besides one kid’s book from the 1930s that had talked about the pigeons.
And then with Whittlesey I was just so amazed doing my research at how much had been written and said about him—he was such a hero, he was stunningly famous—but how little he said. He was extremely reticent and taciturn, very kind of classic New England letting his actions speak for him. So I thought giving him some kind of speaking role was important.
Cher Ami in particular was one of the most memorable perspectives I’ve read in a long time, and it had me trying to think of other stories told from an animal’s perspective. Were there any narrators you were thinking of when you approached this character?
One of the things that I’m interested in is how this is going to be received by readers, because I think in our culture in 2020 there’s this idea that books from the perspective of animals are for children, that they’re a juvenile perspective or that there’s something simplistic about them. I dislike that stereotype for two reasons. I think kids are really smart, so children’s literature can actually be really sophisticated. But I also dislike it because adults in this era of climate catastrophe are the ones that most need to hear from non-human perspectives and take them seriously.
So that’s a bit of a digression from your question, but to answer who I sort of had in my mind, it was children’s literature. I was thinking back to Charlotte’s Web which of course is not only from animal perspectives, but E.B. White does that sort of omniscient perspective where he hops from character’s head to character’s head. So sometimes you’re with humans like Fern, the young girl who’s on the farm, but other times you’re slipping in and out of animal consciousness. And then with White Fang, Jack London very seriously and with a great deal of dignity—honestly so much violence and darkness—portrays the wolfdog’s perspective. I thought that was inspiring. And finally Watership Down, the bunny book. I think for a lot of people who hadn’t read it it’s easy to be like “oh, that’s for kids, it’s a bunch of little cotton tails,” but again it’s actually very nuanced and layered, and it’s commenting on society.
But you’ll notice that none of those books are in first person, so as much as I was inspired by them I also wanted to make it my own and let Cher Ami be the one talking to the audience.
The depth of background information you provide is really remarkable. How did you approach the research component of writing this book, and how long did it take?
The first time in my life that I ever heard of Cher Ami was 2013. I had this student at DePaul, Brian Micic, who wrote this kind of throwaway line about Cher Ami in this poem and recommended I look it up. And at that point in 2013, I Googled Cher Ami and had my mind just blown apart by the fact that this story was so astonishing, this idea that she not only saved the Lost Battalion but also how many pigeons were crucial to both sides of the battles. So at that point I began my research phase, which for me is probably my favorite because by then the ideal you have in your head hasn’t been corrupted by the failures of putting it on the page—since you know it’s never as perfect as you want. I love research because you can say “it’s going to be the best pigeon novel ever.”
So then I researched for several years, and for me I tend to research as much as I can in material from the era and about the era. The great thing is because Whittlesey and Cher Ami were so famous, there were tons of newspaper articles from the time detailing what happened to them and what happened after they returned. And I stayed in that phase for about two or three years, and then I really started writing it in earnest. But I’ll take like hundreds of pages of notes, and then I don’t look at it again unless I have to. I just get it all in my head and fill up the reservoir and let it flood out, and I hope that it keeps my historical fiction from being too “nonfiction-y.”
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Do you ever find that there is a tension between presenting the factual details as researched and the more creative components of fiction, like characterization and imagery? Or does the research spur your creative process?
Yeah, I think research is absolutely generative, because what I get when I have some kind of factoid or anecdote or episode that I’m so enamored of is this sort of homework assignment that challenges me to transfer it into something that comes realistically from the sort of embodied sense of this other consciousness going through the world. And so you can’t just throw down crazy facts, you have to think about what would be the situation in which the characters I have to work with would go through this or think of this or gossip about or reference this. I have documents full of things I really wanted to use and just couldn’t because Cher Ami wouldn’t know about this or Whittlesey wouldn’t bring it up. So you have to let a lot of stuff go.
This is such a nuanced depiction of war and its horrors. There are scenes that are both incredibly harrowing and brutal, but you never let the story become blinded by heroism. Were there any specific tropes of the war genre you actively tried to avoid or reinvent?
It’s something I give to Cher Ami to think about how an anti-war book only warns if the reader is prepared to be warned. I tried really hard to write what I consider an anti-war book. I hate war and I think there should never be war. I know there are some people who think that’s unrealistic but I think it’s a failure of imagination to think that war is inevitable. So I really tried hard to write a book that took away any glamour or appeal from this practice that humans appear to love to do. I think one of the ways I was able to do that was with my two protagonists.
A pigeon isn’t going to fall victim to the tropes of camaraderie and human connection and homo-social environment where you become a part of this band of brothers, and so Cher Ami is experiencing the war in this way that’s at a kind of a perplexed and bewildered remove. And I didn’t want it to be cutesy. I didn’t want her to be like “me a pigeon, me no understand war,” but you see her time and time again being like “why are they doing this, I can’t comprehend because pigeons don’t do this.”
So that was one thing. And then with Whittlesey, even though he was heroic and extremely courageous and brave, he wasn’t going to succumb to this mindset of the happy-few band of brothers. He was always going to feel like a fish out of water and a little guarded about things. But at the same time I tried to depict how he was kind of drawn to that, and if you could say he has a flaw I think it’s that despite his best intentions, when this conflict happened and everyone was signing up he was seduced by that and he was like “oh I should do that, it’s my duty and it might be an adventure.” And then I really wanted to show that it was absolutely no fun at all.
Your novel explores the way we monumentalize our history in ways that airbrush inconvenient truths, and in fact one of the most tragic outcomes of this story is that both characters end up becoming symbols of this struggle without stories of their own. How do you see fiction playing a role in correcting that historical record?
I love that question. I’m going to borrow a metaphor from another writer who’s not unproblematic but who I think still has much to teach us, David Foster Wallace. He has this great thing he said that fiction is the artform that lets you leap over that wall that traditionally, logistically separates me from you and me from everyone else who’s not me. And though I love other genres, and I write poetry and nonfiction, I think to me fiction is that genre that lets you sort of slip on the pigeon suit or slip on the man suit and suddenly you’re seeing out of this other individual’s eyes and feeling their heart and your brain becomes their brain.
So I think because of that sort of magical superpower of fiction, it is kind of uniquely suited—at least I hope and I tried—to get past this monumentality that you’re talking about. Because a monument is a wall. I mean, Cher Ami’s taxidermied body is literally behind a plexiglass wall in the Smithsonian right now. And like I say in the book, there’s very little context [in the Smithsonian exhibit], and there are inaccuracies. It still says she’s a dude when she was a lady, whatever that means to pigeons. So I think similarly with Whittlesey, he has this kind of mysterious, to [some] people inscrutable but I think really intelligible ending, where the pressures of being a hero are so great that he just removes himself from the situation in the most thorough way possible. I think this is the chance to think about why would someone do that and what could drive someone to do that. I can’t say definitively, but he’s spoken about and held up as this model of heroism, and anything he says or does just gets overshadowed by that for the rest of his life.
You’ve written about real people twice now with Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey and your last novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. Are there any characters or time periods from history you’re drawn to for future projects?
I want to write about contemporary people again, and I think I will. I have a novel in a drawer that is about contemporary people. It didn’t sell, but we’ll see…I like to think it’s sleeping not dead. But in the meantime, I do have a project I’m working on now that’s based on a silent movie star, so I would say hopefully depending on how that goes, stay tuned for something about the silent era. I think it will be set partly in Chicago because the silent film industry has a big history here. A lot of people don’t know it, but there was Essanay Studios up on Argyle. So that’s kind of where my head is at right now.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches in the English Department at DePaul University, and her most recent books include the national bestseller, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press 2017/Picador 2018) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018). Her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, based on a true story of the Great War, was published by Penguin in August.
Michael Welch is a daily editor for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at http://www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch. www.michaelbwelch.com
Originally published in the Chicago Review of Book on August 20, 2020