Monday, August 10, 2020

"Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey"

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 best-seller, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte (2018). Her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, is based on a true story of the Great War.

Rooney applied the Page 69 Test to Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey and reported the following:
From page 69:
On February 4, 1918, Colonel Averill led the 308th Infantry in parade up Eighth Avenue and down Fifth. A West Point instructor well-liked by the soldiers, he was determined to reassure the Manhattanites gathered on the sidewalks that the hordes plucked from their midst by the draft had been ennobled. The men seemed determined to prove it, too.

The crowd was huge and ready to be dazzled, despite a driving snowstorm and a bitter wind. Face upon cheering face appraised us as we filed by, snowflakes on our olive drab, slush under our boots. Marguerite and Bayard watched us pass, as did men from the Williams and Harvard Clubs, and men whom I had met on the street and taken home and then never met again. On the march, though, I had no impression of individual identities, either among the spectators or in our uniformed column. We seemed to become two huge organisms, one watched and the other watching, creatures at once new to the world and utterly ancient, enacting a ritual older than history itself.

Dazzle we did, and with such effectiveness that enlistments soared throughout the city during the next week, and the Army issued orders for infantry units all over the country to do the same in their cities.

I should have been proud. Instead all I felt was ineffable sadness, which—I did not understand at the time, but realize now, aboard the Toloa—was due to the fact that we were about to take these men whom we had improved so much physically and mentally to Europe and erase all traces not just of that improvement but of their entire existence.

Here at sea, I put on my dress uniform and hang my regular clothes in the tiny wardrobe. I might as well look the part of war hero tonight at the captain’s table, as it will be expected of me. The very last expectation that I’ll be required to meet.
I’m always up for an arbitrary challenge, so I’ve long been enamored of McLuhan’s book-browser’s shortcut. As fate would have it, this trick works magically on page 69 of Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey in that it offers a surprisingly comprehensive sense of the book as a whole, or at least the half of the book told in the first person from the Army officer Charles Whittlesey’s perspective.

Page 69 happens to be the very last page of Chapter 4 and as such it lets the reader see how the book is structured around Whit’s flashing back to his military experiences of the past from the deck of a Havana-bound cruise ship called the Toloa. The memories and emotions Whit reflects upon here—his love of the men he trained, his double life as a gay man in New York City in 1910s Manhattan, and his regret and sorrow over what he and his men went through on the battlefield in France—are the ones which drive his portion of the plot.

What’s not on page 69, though, is a mention of the book’s other equally important protagonist, the homing pigeon Cher Ami, who was deployed with Whit and his men, and who delivered a crucial message during the battle of the Meuse-Argonne. The chapters of the book alternate back and forth between Whit and Cher Ami, each of them taking turns to revisit their recent history as they recall it. So when the reader turns from page 69 to page 70, they enter into Chapter 5 and get to hear once again from Cher Ami about her take on events.
Visit Kathleen Rooney's website.

--Marshal Zeringue