There are a number of times reading Newbery’s from the 1920s where I think, “well, that probably wouldn’t be the way someone would write it now,” and the title of our 1928 book is one of those times. It’s about a carrier pigeon named Chitra Griva, roughly translated as iridescent throated, or a neck painted in gay colors, thus Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon. Amazon helpfully suggested other cleverly named erotica that I could read when I first searched for Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s 1928 Newbery Winner Gay-Neck. Thank you Amazon.
Gay-Neck follows a pigeon and the boy who cares for him as well as a wise older man who cares for all animals on their journeys around India, into the Himalayas, and even to a few battles in Europe during WWI because Gay-Neck is used as a carrier pigeon for the army.
What I liked. Gay-Neck was the most poetic of the Newberies so far. It was also the shortest and had the most vivid and descriptive language of birds and plants and mountains. Everything was lush and jewel-toned, and elaborately narrated. (Think like when Aravis the Tarkheena from C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy tells her story.) I think the best parts of the books were just the writings on fear and peace, jungles, mountains, sunrises, swifts, eagles, hawks, and of course, pigeons.
What was interesting. By far the most interesting part of the book for me were the religious undertones in the book. The narrator is an elite Indian, likely a Hindu although it’s not spelled out, but he does say that he doesn’t eat meat. (And Gay-Neck only, once, accidentally, eats an ant. Otherwise, Gay-Neck too is a vegetarian pigeon.) But throughout their travels they stay in monasteries with lamas who are praying these beautiful prayers for peace and against fear and about greeting the sun behind the mountains. This movement of the human and bird characters away from fear after something horrible (a hawk attack, WWI battle) is one of the main themes of the book, and one that I was surprised at how contemporary-sounding and beautifully-written I found them to be.
What were some limitations. The main limitation of the book was the general lack of plot. It’s a very anecdotal tale, in which each chapter or two doesn’t seem to have much to do with the others. It was short and pretty enough that compared to the long collections of actual folk tales (Tales from the Silver Lands, & Shen of the Sea) I recently read, I am not complaining that loudly about the way this book meandered through beautiful countryside philosophizing about fear and peace.
Why I think it’s a Newbery/Similarity to other Newbery winners. Gay-Neck is a travel adventure centering on an animal, a theme which other books like Voyages of Dr. Dolittle and Smoky the Cowhorse share. The narrative tone and style of Gay-Neck though, especially compared to Smoky, is remarkably different. First, there are sections in which Gay-Neck is the first person narrator, but even when he is not actually narrating, he as a character is much more fully personified than Smoky the Cowhorse. Smoky has a 3rd person omniscient narrator, and while the narrator definitely gives Smoky feelings (there is a lot of talk about Smoky’s heart and his hatred or love), Smoky’s feelings and ability to communicate are much more wild-animal-like than human. I wonder if there are some reincarnation influences with Gay-Neck that make his emotional life as a bird so much richer than Smoky’s, and so similar to the work that the humans are also doing: moving out of fear into peace.
What it teaches me as a writer. I loved the description of the beauty of the mountains, and the birds. In a way nature is the best character in this book. All that reminds me how essential it is to develop setting. (Although, I also should remember to make sure there is a plot that is moving and growing within that setting too.)
Have you read Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon? What are your favorite bird/animal books?
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