Without animal stories, children's literature as a genre may never have existed. There's something universally appealing for younger readers in seeing the world from wholly different eyes, whether they be the eyes of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, E. B. White's Wilbur, or Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Gay-Neck.
Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon is unique among Newbery Medalists in that it tells the story of a pigeon both from the bird's point of view, and from the perspective of the young Indian boy who keeps and trains him. India in the early 20th century was very different from 21st-century America, and this novel shows us just how different.
Calling Gay-Neck a novel is a little misleading. It describes Mukerji's own adventures growing up in India, particularly his joys and trials raising pigeons. His favored pigeon, a beautiful male flyer called Gay-Neck due to his throat coloring, takes Mukerji on many adventures and flies away on a few of his own.
Throughout the book, Mukerji and Gay-Neck play in their home city of Dentam, explore the Himalayas, and become involved in the British war effort during World War I. Gay-Neck is sent to the European front as a carrier pigeon, and though his early adventures with Mukerji prepared him for the long flights, nothing could have prepared the noble pigeon for the horrors of war.
Over the no-man's-land of the front lines, Gay-Neck contracts an illness: fear and hatred. The conflict and his role in it are too much for the bird's tender heart, and he becomes infected with negative emotions and feelings that he must strive to overcome. Though these episodes come late in the book, they form a theme throughout Mukerji's novel/memoir/fantasy.
This theme is inflected with sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit Hindu and Buddhist overtones. Pagan gods are referenced, Mukerji and Gay-Neck both pray to them, and the path toward enlightenment is one reached through inner peace and care. It's important for Christian parents to explain these things to their kids, but this is a fascinating and accurate representation of life in India about a century ago.
Mukerji writes with simplicity and poetry that draws readers of all ages into his very real, very foreign story. He describes things as someone who's seen them: "The sky above, as usual in the winter, was cloudless and remote, a sapphire intangibility." Boris Artzybasheff's ink illustrations illumine a book that stands very well on its own, and is well worth a read nearly 100 years later.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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