I was putting together the list of Newbery Medal winners a few weeks ago, and I saw Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji on the list as winner in the 1920s. A novel about a pigeon? I pictured New York City, Central Park. I pictured the “Feed the Birds” scene in the movie Mary Poppins. I was curious.
Then, the next week, as I looked at Christmas books in the separate “Christmas section” of the library, I saw Gay-Neck perched on the edge of the Juvenile fiction shelf. Could a novel about a pigeon really be interesting? Does a Newbery Medal winner from 1928 stack up to modern children’s literature? I decided to read it.
Gay-Neck’s story is not about Central Park and feeding the birds. Gay-Neck (named “Chitra-Griva,” iridescence-throated, due to the beautifully colored feathers around his throat) is a pet of a young boy living in India in 1914. It begins with Gay-Neck’s birth and follows his life. But Gay-Neck’s life is not just eating seeds: he learns directions via excursions to the jungle with the boy and he becomes a messenger pigeon for soldiers during World War II. The boy has many adventures with Gay-Neck by his side. When Gay-Neck is horribly frightened, Gay-Neck must learn to overcome his fear, as does the boy and as do we. Gay-Neck is a brave, loyal bird.
Gay-Neck provides so much information about various kinds of birds that I sometimes felt I was reading a nonfiction book for children. And yet, it was somewhat interesting to hear of not just how pigeons live, learn, and raise their young, but also how swifts, eagles, geese, and half a dozen other birds and animals also do so.
Gay-Neck had an odd narration style, which is probably reminiscent of the era (1920s) in which it was written. In some places, it felt like Rudyard Kipling’s jungle stories because the birds started narrating their own story in first person; but such stories failed to have any sense of a magical world that Kipling created. Other times, the narration was the boy’s or his hunter friend’s, Ghond’s. Essentially none of the narration was engaging, although sometimes the story became so.
In short, I don’t think Mukerji is a great writer: the narration was not very well told and it felt awkward.
In the end, though, I think Gay-Neck was a highly interesting look at pigeons as pets in the early 1900s. How many children’s novels are there about special dogs as a kid’s best friend? This is the same kind of thing, but it’s a loyal pigeon. Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon may interest a child who enjoys birds. It teaches about many kinds of birds, as well as 1914 India.
Reading Gay-Neck hasn’t made me eager to read the other early winners: it wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t great. Have you read any of the early Newbery winners? (list here). Have you found them to be worth reading?
(Interesting info about the author at Wikipedia.)
If you have reviewed Gay-Neck, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.