Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Neverending Pigeon Story

A Good Reads review written by Good Reads member Phil Jern says of Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the Newbery Medal winner for 1928, "This book is a milestone in anyone's life as a reader. Before it, you are one of a multitude. After it, you are one of a select few who have heard about it, sought it out, picked it up, and persisted with it well past the point of enjoyment." This seems harsh. Unfortunately, I cannot disagree with a word of it.

Gay-Neck, like 1927's Newbery Medal winner Smoky the Cowhorse, is the story of a life of an animal told by a writer who clearly has a great love of and significant experience with the species, and again as in the case of Smoky the Cowhorse, the resulting book manages to be very dull anyway. Gay-Neck is at least mercifully free from the ugly racism and folksy affectations of Smoky the Cowhorse, though the titular name of its main character hasn't dated as well. The story's narrator is a young boy who raised Gay-Neck in pre-World War I Calcutta (now Kolkata). There are a few sections of the book in which Gay-Neck speaks for himself, but Gay-Neck's narrative "voice" reads as identical to that of the main narrator, which is not only confusing but a missed opportunity for adding to the literary quality and reader's enjoyment of the book. Anthropomorphized animal or object "voices" can be a lot of fun when properly done. (I have fond memories of an email correspondence that occurred between the problem mice in my house and a friend of mine years ago before I adopted my cat. The first email had the subject line "send cheees now" and in it the mice claimed to have "trapped the murderus human in her own trap ha ha ha send cheees now we like bree".)

Gay-Neck's story is based upon Mukerkji's own boyhood experiences, as he also grew up in India and kept pigeons. We learn next to nothing about the boy -- not even his name! -- or the Calcutta of the time, which seems a waste. There are tantalizing glimpses of India and its culture in the book's descriptions of Mount Everest and the jungle and some fragments of Buddhist thought, but in general the story's narrator is too busy telling us about the care and feeding of pigeons and advising us on how often to clean pigeon's nests to develop much of a setting for his story, much less any of the other qualities that make for good fiction. There's no character development and not much of a narrative arc, and the prose is flatly observational.

Then Gay-Neck serves as a messenger pigeon in World War I, and whatever the story gains in narrative interest during the war chapters it loses in authenticity, as Mukerji never trained pigeons for war service much less witnessed their use for such a purpose. He claims that the nictitating membrane or "third eye" that pigeons protected Gay-Neck from the effects of mustard gas. Pigeons did prove resistant to all but the most poisonous gases, but they were fitted with masks and provided with pigeon lofts especially designed to protect messenger pigeons from poisonous gas, and there's no mention of this in the battlefront scenes in Gay-Neck. I'm also skeptical that the narrator, who spends the book repeatedly losing and rediscovering his precious pigeon, not only gets Gay-Neck back after the war but also helps him make what must be the world's fastest-ever recovery from PTSD with some Buddhist monk magic, but at that point I was too relieved to have reached the end of the book to care very much.

After making most of my way through the Newbery Medal winners of the 1920s, I sometimes wonder if the librarians who were the Newbery committee members of the period actually secretly hated children.

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