Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon

Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1928)

Read to: K - 5th grade

Read independently: 4th - 8th grade

The bird's name is actually Chitra-griva which is Indian for "painted in gay colours" (p. 16). If you can get past the silly sounding name of the bird, this is an enjoyable story that opens a window into a world that is hugely interesting and largely unknown. Right from the first sentence I was surprised to read, "The city of Calcutta, which boasts of a million people, must have at least two million pigeons. Every third Hindu boy has perhaps a dozen pet[s]..." (p. 15). The story is told through the author's eyes, reflecting on his childhood (as explained on the front cover jacket). If you skip the jacket you'll miss that info. It makes the author seem rather pompous because apparently we're just supposed to know who he is and what his experience is. And there are several references, like on p. 16, when he says, "My elephant friend was called Kari, of whom you have heard before, ..." (um, no, I haven't) or references to other books he's written and assumes we've read. Good writers of serial stories know that while each book is connected, they should also be able to stand alone. Yet here is an award-winning author shooting holes in his own book by connecting it to something and then leaving you wondering. Makes me wonder (again) what criteria the Newbery panel uses.

The first three chapters discuss the care and training of pigeons. In addition to learning about pigeons, we also learn a bit about the Hindu religion such as at the bottom of page 35, "Hindus, who are religious people, get up in good time to behold the sublime hills and to pray to God. ... Heights like that of the Everest are symbols of the highest reality - GOD. They are symbolic of God's mystery...".

In Chapter Four the family and pets take an extended vacation to the Himalayas. On page 36 we are introduced to two friends, Ghond and Radja, and together these three continue to train the pigeon and see some nice sights along the way, including a lot of time spent observing an eagle's eyrie. When Gay-Neck gets frightened by a protective eagle he takes off and Dhan and friends what around to see if he'll come back. They spend many days trying to track Gay-Neck which winds up being a religious pilgrimage of their own, visiting a lamasery (like a monastery) and having religious / philosophical discussions. They also stop to visit a friend and have an encounter with an elephant so that by the time they get home, Gay-Neck has already returned.

However, the next day Gay-Neck flies off again and after four or five days without return, Dhan and Ghond go in search of the bird. By page 74 (Ch. 7) they have found the bird again and the point of view switches to Gay-Neck with the explanation, " order to see those things clearly and continuously, it would be better to let Gay-Neck tell his own Odyssey. It is not hard for us to understand him if we use the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of imagination." Twenty pages later (be careful what pigeon voice you choose to read Gay-Neck) he concludes with a pondering on page 93, "Why is there so much killing and inflicting of pain by birds and beasts on one another? I don't think all of you men hurt each other. Do you? But birds and beasts do. All that makes me so sad."

That also ends Part One. But, World War I is just beginning, so Dahn decides, "to give Gay-Neck such training as would be necessary in case he was asked to be a carrier for the British War Department." (p. 97) (Because obviously of all the pigeons in the world they are going to come ask for Gay-Neck!) This involves acquiring even more pigeons, and a visit to the jungle. By page 130 Gay-Neck is indeed gone off to war!! Again the story switches to Gay-Neck's point of view for about fifteen pages and then ten pages later for five more pages. The war stories are more noisy than gory, although Gay-Neck's bird buddy does die the narration is so lofty and wordy it could get lost in the poetry. Ghond almost dies but Gay-Neck carries a message to save him. Probably the more gory part is almost at the end of the book. Ghond and Gay-Neck have returned from war sick with the misery of seeing so much fighting they go yet again to a lamasery. As part of the healing they go on a buffalo quest and wind up killing it on page 188.

The book has many interesting grains of wisdom which made me want to pause and spin them over in my head a few times but, alas, my bedtime duties called. A lot of the passages were encouraging in overcoming fear. An example of a passage of wisdom is from page 128, displayed here:

...almost all our troubles come from fear, worry and hate. If any man catches one of the three, the other two are added unto it. No beast of prey can kill his victim without frightening him first. In fact, no animal perishes until its destroyer strikes terror into its heart. To put it succinctly, an animal's fear kills it before its enemy gives it the final blow.

The book ends with another great passage worth of meditation and a final, "Peace be unto all!"