1928: Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon (yes, that’s the real title)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2

As the title suggestions, this unique story by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the 1928 Newbery Medal Winner, tells the story of an Indian pigeon. The narration alternates between first person and third person. Gay-Neck the pigeon narrates some of his own sections (in a very overblown, florid style). It got to the point where I groaned whenever I read lines like “it is better to listen to Gay-Neck’s own story” (131) because I knew they heralded a switch to the torturous verbiage of a pigeon’s vocabulary.

Basically, Gay-Neck does for pigeons what Smoky the Cowhorse did for horses. Mukerji describes, in great detail, the birth, growth, and training of pigeons. Gay-Neck is born in a pigeon hole (sorry, it’s true, even if it is a bad pun) on the roof of the narrator’s house. After his parents teach him to fly, he is taken into the Himalayas to practice homing. Eagles frighten him away, causing a 10 day search through jungles and monasteries. Many (mis)adventures follow. Gay-Neck, the smartest and best of pigeons, is named their leader while training for the upcoming battles and takes grievous wounds defending his flock. Sorry. The verbiage of Gay-Neck must be seeping into my own. In few words, a buzzard almost eats him and he becomes scared of shadows. Once he heals and regains confidence, Gay-Neck sails for the battlefields of World War I to serve as a message carrier. He successfully completes several critical missions, before returning to India damaged in body and mind. The little bird came down with a case of PTSD. Some time in a monastery cured everything, and everyone lived happily ever after. Maybe.

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Ironically, my favorite sections of the story are complete opposites. My #1 favorite was when Gay-Neck carried messages during World War I. The plot was stronger and action much more constant, linear, and meaningful. Instead of the narrator scampering after a wayward pigeon, handler Ghond and Gay-neck undertook legitimately dangerous missions to help the Indian units gather crucial intelligence. The Germans knew Gay-Neck’s purpose and tried their hardest to kill him. The author’s penchant for detailed description also creates empathy for Gay-Neck and Ghond when they are sent back to India with PTSD. My second favorite were parts involving the lamaseries and monasteries. The teachings of the monks are quite quotable and inspired me to sit down and really think about the content of the sayings. They provide a counterbalance and a cure for the fear which life brings; they heal Gay-Neck and try to heal the wider world.

Stylistically, the story is very richly described. For my own taste, the level of descriptive detail was so high that it was distracting from the (fairly lame) plot. I can only take so many dense jungles, sparkling pigeon feathers, etc. etc. However, if you were reading this aloud to a kid, the description might work. Might. I advice just looking at the pictures, myself.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book. While it does paint a fairly rich picture of early twentieth century India, the plot is underdeveloped, character growth (other than the physical) is non-existent, and the writing style is just plain tedious.

 

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