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August 12, 2020

Kathleen Rooney's Playlist for Her Novel "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey"

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Kathleen Rooney's imaginative novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is a smart and lyrical evocation of the cost of war.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Imaginative and audacious...Rooney uses Cher Ami's bird's-eye view and curious afterlife to exhilarating, comic, and terrifying effect, while Whit's tragic fate is exquisitely rendered... Unforgettable... A celebration of animal intelligence, and tribute to altruism and courage."

In her own words, here is Kathleen Rooney's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey:

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey tells the story of its title characters—a homing pigeon and a soldier—and their respective roles in the Meuse-Argonne Forest in France in October of 1918 in one of the last major battles in World War I, aka the Great War, aka the War to End All Wars. World War I is the war with which I am the most fascinated because of the way it illustrates indisputably how futile all wars are no matter their time and place. This war led to an estimated 9.7 million deaths of military personnel and about 10 million civilians. Sixteen million animals—including dogs, mules, horses, donkeys, camels, and at least 100,000 pigeons—were dragooned by humans to “serve.” This playlist of 11 songs is an audio testament to the beauty of pigeons and to the sorrow of the conflicts that humans could avoid, but through the generations keep choosing to pursue.

“Check the Rhime” by a Tribe Called Quest (1991) — The first single from their second studio album, The Low End Theory, the entire song—like that album—is a delight from start to finish. But the relevant part here is the early verse on which Q-Tip asks, “Yo, Phife, you remember that routine / That we used to make spiffy like Mr. Clean?” and Phife Dawg replies “Um um, a tidbit, um, a smidgen / I don't get the message so you gots to run the pigeon.” Messenger pigeons were a crucial component of communications during WWI—and in countless human civilizations prior to that—and this song nods to the birds’ impressive skill.

“Sally’s Pigeons” by Cyndi Lauper, co-written with Mary Chapin Carpenter (1993) — A tribute to a childhood friend who died after an illegal abortion, Lauper’s elegiac song and video are heartrending tear jerkers. The latter features gorgeous footage of an urban homing pigeon fancier letting his flock out of their loft and into the air for exercise and training. “We were innocent and wild,” Lauper sings of the narrator and Sally. “Hopped a fence and slammed the gate / Running down my alleyway / In time to watch Sally's pigeons fly // We loved to watch them dive and soar / Circle in the sky / Free as a bird from three to four…” I hope my book causes people who may have dismissed pigeons before to see them in a new and more affectionate light.

“The Mortician’s Daughter” by Freedy Johnston (1992) — From his album Can You Fly, this song is another one about love and loss from a singer-songwriter whose Wikipedia entry says “Johnston's songs are often about troubled loners, and cover topics like heartbreak, alienation, and disappointment.” I aspire for Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey to make people cry like this song often does to me. Plus, there’s a pigeon in the last two lines: “There's a lonely dove out on the telephone wire / I turn my head and she flies away.”

“Last Light” by Zero 7 featuring José Gonzlez (2015) — This novel is, to my mind, a very Anthropocene one about what humans do, self-destructively, to themselves and their environments, including the earth they live on and the creatures around them. This song resonates with that—“earthquakes, hurricanes, white doves flying”—and contains a (probably doomed) desire to be able to promise someone, anyone: “I’ll keep you safe and sound.”

“Shot Down” by Khalid (2017) — Not a pigeon song! From his album of the same title, the central conceit comparing love to a violent and even war-like act is not super-original: “But you got me shot down by love / You got my heart now / Why won't you stop now?” Yet both Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey fall in love during the war, and the passion, pain, and longing that this song expresses musically provides a pleasing soundtrack to that.

“The Barrel” by Aldous Harding (2019) — From her album of the same title, Harding’s is pigeon song. The lyric “It’s already dead / I know you have the dove” reminds me of Whittlesey’s love interest, the pigeon man Bill Cavanaugh, the best pigeon handler in his battalion who always has the doves and knows how best to send them off with their messages.

“Starblood” by the Cranes (1991) — I learned about this terrifying dirge in 2019’s March Vladness tournament, a competition run by Megan Campbell and Ander Monson to determine the best goth song of all time. “Starblood” didn’t win, but I haven’t heard any tune scarier before or since. The martial drums are unforgiving and Alison Shaw’s baby-voice sounds like a child-ghost shouting from the depths of a filthy cave, like she’s already descended to her death and soon so will you. It sounds like I imagine trench warfare felt: bloodcurdling and annihilating.

“A Perfect Day” by Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1910) — Jacobs-Bond wrote this parlor song in 1910 and it became an instant hit, selling eight million copies of sheet music and five million records within its first year. During WWI, when she was entertaining troops at Army camps in Europe, it was her most requested song. It’s a tune Whittlesey would undoubtedly have known, and its popularity during and after the war—as an elegy for those who died in battle—would have been on his mind.

“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” co-written by Alfred Bryan and Al Piantadosi, recorded by the Peerless Quintet (1914) — This song sounds quaint and dated today, but it was important in its era as an unapologetically anti-war song that galvanized the pacifist movement: “Let nations arbitrate their future troubles, / It's time to lay the sword and gun away. / There'd be no war today, / If mothers all would say, / “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.” Whittlesey was initially anti-war, but came to feel the U.S. was obligated to intervene. When he returned, he became a vocal advocate for forgiveness and peace, but his audiences didn’t agree, and it was too late anyway to change his or millions of other soldiers’ fates.

“Pretty Pimpin’” by Kurt Vile (2015) —Vile’s song isn’t supposed to be about a soldier with PTSD, obviously, but the dissociation and detachment of both the song and the video match the repetitive, looping, and isolated feeling of remove that Whittlesey experienced as he tried to recuperate his normal life after the war.

“Passenger Pigeons” by The Handsome Family (2001) — This song is about a different kind of pigeon than Cher Ami, who was a homing pigeon. Specifically it memorializes the lovely, migratory passenger pigeon, named after the French verb passager meaning passing by. Rennie Sparks sings:

Once there were a billion passenger pigeons
So many flew by they darkened the sky
But they were clubbed and shot, netted, gassed and burned
Until there was nothing left but vines of empty nests

That devastation—totally avoidable but totally total—makes me think of WWI and global warming and all our other tragic and maddeningly deliberate human mistakes. “I can't believe how easily / A billion birds can disappear.” Neither can I.

Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin's Press, 2017) and the co-editor of René Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). She is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Her previous work includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Allure, Salon, The Chicago Tribune, The Nation and elsewhere. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay.

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