Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon Reviews

UPDATE TIME: 2017-08-18 
Review Score: 4 out of 5 star From 13 user ratings

"1928 Newbery Medal Winner

A book mostly taking place in India in which a pigeon and the kid who owns him and an older guy who is sort of one with animals or something have adventures. The pigeon serves as a carrier in WWI, gets PTSD, and is cured by Buddhist wisdom.

It was weird--I kind of like it in the same way that I like some of Elizabeth Goudge's writing. Stylistically well-done with some very beautiful descriptions and spiritual insights. Very poorly done in terms of characterization, structure, and cohesion.

On one hand I like it that the birds are not anthropomorphized when the writing is from the humans' perspective, but on the other hand, mixing that with sections from Gay-Neck's perspective in which he does think kind of like a human just confuses things and takes away from what structure exists.

The book has too many viewpoint characters for a simple story, or maybe it's that their character arcs are inconsistent... no real character change happens through most of the book, then about 70% of the way in, you get the war and both Gay-Neck and Ghond succumbing to fear, which they then overcome. The rest is just a series of episodic, spazzy, random events.

Beautiful book about India written by an Indian in a time when most of the Newbery winners were written by kinda racist white dudes.

Awesome theme, poor execution.

Also, I feel bad for the author... according to Wikipedia, he was in some political trouble in his time and had to flee to the U. S. where he published his books. Struggling with depression and longing for India but never being able to return, he eventually committed suicide. I wish he'd been able to internalize the messages of hope in his own work. R. I. P.
" said.

"This 1928 Newbery Medal Award winner is dreadfully dull. A note I made to myself during the reading: Maybe the world was so boring back then, without TV and all, that this passed for entertainment?

And that statement is similar to my first response to this book as a child (still in single digits); I fell asleep while this story was read to us kids (we didn't read it in one sitting so I actually fell asleep many times and wasn't too concerned about catching up with the story in between reading sessions).

The bulk of the story pertains to a bird, a pigeon named Gayneck, being attacked by other birds. The climax comes when Gayneck joins WWI and the birds are replaced by airplanes. There's a boy involved too - we know that he lives in India - but we don't even learn his name and see little about his living conditions. This story has some beautiful descriptions of the sky and the Himalayas but they are scattered few and far between; there's just enough detail about India to hint at the exotic.

On the plus side, this is one of the few early Newbery books that isn't highly-offensive to another culture. Dhan Gopal Mukerji was actually born in India before he relocated to the UK and, later, America. The influence of colonialism is (strangely) absent; children unaware of Indian history probably won't notice (if you can keep them awake) but more worldly adults will note the lack of historical detail regarding an old culture (if you can stay awake).

Mukerji missed multiple opportunities to teach his readers. We get a vivid description of Gayneck and we learn that pigeons are preyed upon by other birds but we don't get any insight into the actual care of the creatures. We catch glimpses of India but never see the culture. Buddhist monks make a brief appearance but we never learn anything about their religion. WWI explodes across Europe and all we see are airplanes treated like big birds with guns (machine-eagles). We learn nothing about the war or the history of homing pigeons. If you want to know any of this stuff, you have to track down other books to read and there's a pretty good chance those other books will be more interesting.
" said.

"Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon won a Newbery medal in 1928. I have to admit, the title did nothing to arouse interest. I was sort of dreading reading this book. But it was pretty good. Part 2 was really good. The author is from India and moved to the U.S. to attend Stanford when he was 19. The book is about a teen boy who raises carrier pigeons at his home in India. The first part of the book mostly deals with the boy training a pigeon that belongs to him. He names him Gay-Neck because of the brilliant colors in his feathers. This pigeon is from champion speed lines and the boy plans to compete with him once he is trained. The training takes the boy on many trips to many places to teach the bird homing skills and to get him used to many things.

One of his traveling partners is an older man, Ghond, who is very good with animals and traveling safely through even tiger infested jungles. The travel to the base of the Himalayas and visit monks in monasteries and the boy learns a lot about nature he did not know. He finally enters his bird in a competition and he wins. The bird is injured by an eagle later and must be healed both physically, but then healed of his fear. It was pretty interesting the way the bird was talked about.

The second part of the book is about Gay-Neck being trained to go to war to help the allies in WW1. Of course it is called the World War in this book because there has been no WW2 yet. I liked this part the best. The descriptions of the old fighter pilots and the poison gases was very interesting. Some parts of the story are told from the pigeon's point of view and that is fun.

This book would be great for students. It could teach about the cultural and religious differences found in India. It could teach some about WW1. And the style of animal handling by the Indians in the book is like so much of the positive methods used today. Due to the vocabulary, it would probably have to be for older elementary students (L1040). It could be used with slightly younger students as a read aloud. I would not think K-2/3 would track well with the story.
" said.

"OK, so I've finished Gay-Neck, and I guess I see why it was in the Newbery discussion. I don't think it was better than Downright Dencey, though. For some reason, the Newbery Committees of the 1920's only saw it fit to give the award to men. Some will say, "But not so fast. Several women won honors those years. The problem with that is, there were no honors back then, they just gave a list of a few runners-up. They weren't back-labeled as Newbery Honors until much later. You and I both know that runner-up is really just another way of saying "loser." Interestingly, something happened in the 30's. I don't know if ALA was getting some heat for only picking men for an entire decade, but only women won for the entire 1930's. I have never heard this discussed, and it amazed me when I saw it. Only men for the 20's and only women for the 30's. Interesting.

I don't have a whole lot to say about Gay Neck, really. It wasn't as good as Dencey, but it was better than all of the previous winners except for Doctor Dolittle. I liked the freedom that the author took with the narrators, switching back and forth from boy to pigeon. It almost felt kind of magical, like we were actually entering Gay-Neck and taking over his body for a few pages. Gay-Neck was a pretty good storyteller, too. I liked the WWI scenes. 1928 wasn't that long after WWI, so I felt like a lot of the action was probably accurate. I liked the India descriptions. I actually felt kind of sad that Everest isn't this holy place anymore untrodden by humans like it was when this books was published, and like the narrator comments. I wondered if the peoples of Nepal and India lamented while the rest of the world was celebrating when Edmund Hillary achieved his great feat.

Gay Neck was definitely one of the least difficult books of the 20s. The language is still pretty accessible, and it's really short, especially if you just read Smoky the Cow Horse. I still don't think I would have much luck getting one of my students to read it, unless I just happen to come across one someday who happens to be obsessed with pigeons.
" said.

"Here is another book from the 1920’s that I tried to read quickly to “get it over with,” so that I could move on to the “better” books of the more recent Newbery years. “Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon” gave me more interesting reading than I expected, however.

The book, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, reflects the author’s youth in India in the early 1900’s. While living in Calcutta, he tells about his beloved carrier pigeons, their lives and their training. Mukerji then moves with his family to the Himalayas, where Gay-Neck, his favorite of his sixty pigeons, continues his life and his training to become one of the many birds used by most of the countries during World War I to deliver messages from the front to the command posts.

The beauty of his Himalayan setting infuses much of the book. The spirituality of the mountains is mentioned again and again. The serenity that flows from “Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon” also comes from the lamaseries that Mukerji, his friends, and his pigeons routinely visit. The peace and wisdom spoken by the lamas are my favorite parts of this book. I even felt grateful comfort as I read, knowing the lamas still pray today, every dawn and nightfall for the people of the world as we wake and sleep, just as Mukerji heard them pray in 1917.

I look forward to seeing how my grandchildren react if they read this Newbery as they mature. I hope that they will do so.

The serenity of this book is ironic, of course, since Gay-Neck and his flock truly experienced the horrors of the World War. Mukerji does not spare details of his birds flying through fighter planes (“machine eagles“) and being targets of the same. This book is historical fiction, and enemy planes did try to destroy pigeons whom they knew were carrying messages from the front lines. Gay-Neck’s experiences (Mukerji calls them “adventures”) during the war brought great fear and horror into his life. Once again, the lamas helped, and taught Mukerji how to help his pet.

The recommended age for “Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon,” is eight years and older. The book ends with advice for living well that is wonderful, but also somber. Like all those who love their children, I hope that my grandchildren will not need the words until (much) later in their lives.
" said.

"I think this may be one of the hardest books I've ever had to rate.

In the 1920s the John Newbery award was established to help encourage excellence in children's literature - a newly developing genre. From what I can tell this isn't too much later after the time (according to the James Garfield book I'm reading) families would sit down and the father would read Othello to his children at night.

So do I rate this book as it would have been ranked in the 1920s? Because its biggest barrier, the formality of the language and the vocabulary - very well could have been expected and accepted in its day. But in comparative modern children's literature...ugh. I suppose technology has ruined us for the slow pace of historical lit. I do have to say the black and white illustrations are gorgeous.

Gay-Neck (which is translated to brightly colored neck) is literally the story of a pigeon. The nameless narrator is an adolescent boy in India whose hobby is pigeon-ing. Apparently a pretty big hobby back in the day. We know very little of the narrator except for his observations of his pigeon. When his narrative fails to tell the whole story of the pigeon, he has Gay-Neck tell his story first person.

There is A LOT of bird stuff here. Bird flocks, bird training, bird food, bird fights, bird flights, and prey/predator interactions. For the bird lovers out there - they will eat. this. up. For the rest of us? I have minor interest as it served somewhat to move the plot along? And what is the plot? Well, the development of an exceptional pigeon into a WWI carrier pigeon war hero while working with the British-Indian forces across German lines, and then his recovery from the scars of war.

Overcoming fear is the overarching theme of the book, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the lamas and religious descriptions of the Hindu temples of meditation. I liked the philosophy and religion that was woven into the story of a pigeon.

The setting was sublime. I could feel the author's love for his homeland dripping off the words on the page. The author moved to America at 19 and settled and married, but continued to write about his homeland. He had a passion for trying to educate Americans about his homeland and culture. Unfortunately, he committed suicide at age 46. Which in a way makes this a tragic love letter to his homeland, (seemingly) his first love.

And how does one rate such a book?
" said.

"The whole time I was reading this book I thought of my niece Amelia saying "The bird nerds would LOVE this!", which is true! maybe not love, but if I didn't like birds the way I do I may not have enjoyed this book as much. I have to say though, of the Newberys about animals and Buddhist philosophy...I'm thinking of The Cat Who Went to Heaven here, this was MUCH better, maybe because this book actually had a plot. The author includes a lot of information about birds and their behavior in a way that is interesting...but I'm a bird nerd so I can't speak for everyone! Also, there was some fascinating information that I did not know about Indian culture and customs and India's WWII involvement in Europe.

On animals:
"He had, attached to his eyelid, another thin lid as delicate as was a protective film for the eye that enabled the bird to fly in a dust-storm or straight toward the sun."

"The brooding did for him what cuddling does for human children. It gives the helpless ones warmth and happiness. It is as necessary to them as food."

"I have yet to see a Himalayan eagle that does not sit facing the wind from the time of its birth until it learns to fly, as a sailor boy might sit looking at the sea until he takes to navigating it."

"What a pity that most young people instead of seeing one animal in nature--which is worth a hundred in any zoo--must derive their knowledge of God's creatures from their appearance in prisons! If we cannot perceive any right proportion of man's moral nature by looking at prisoners in a jail, how do we manage to think that we know all about an animal by gazing at him penned in a cage?"

"I am not sorry that the bull died. Better death than to be caged for the rest of his life in a zoo. Real death is preferable to living death."

Other quotes:
"It has been our practise for centuries to pray for all who sleep. A this hour of the night even the insomnia-stricken person finds oblivion; and since men when they sleep cannot possess their conscious thoughts, we pray that Eternal Compassion may purify them, so that when they awake in the morning they will begin their day with thoughts that are pure, kind and brave."

" animal, nor any man, is attacked and killed by an enemy until the latter succeeds in frightening him. I have seen even rabbits escape hounds and foxes when they kept themselves free of fear. Fear clouds one's wits and paralyses one's nerve."

"...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 vicim without frightening him first." " animal's fear kills it before its enemy gives it the final blow."

"Even there, in that very heart of pounding and shooting, where houses fell as birds' nests in tempests, rats ran from hole to hole, mice stole cheese, and spiders spun webs to catch flies. They went on with the business of their lives as if the slaughtering of men by their brothers were as negligible as the clouds that covered the sky."

"Here in the monastery we have prayed to Infinite Compassion twice every day for the healing of the nations of earth. Yet the war goes on, infecting even the birds and beasts with fear and hate. Diseases of the emotions spread faster than the ills of the body. Mankind is going to be so loaded with fear, hate, suspicion and malice that it will take a whole generation before a new set of people can be reared completely free from them."

"Infinite courage is in all life. Each being that lives and breathes is a reservoir of infinite courage." "He who purifies himself to the greatest extent can put into the world the greatest spiritual force."

"May the north wind bring healing unto you, May the south wind bring healing unto you, May the winds of east and west pour healing into you. Fear flees from you, Hate flees from you, And suspicion flees from you."

"If you take a map of France and draw a line from Calais south almost in a straight line, you will come across a series of places where the British and Indian armies were situated. Near Armentieres there are many graves of Indian Mohammedan soldiers. There are no graves of Indian Hindu soldiers because the Hindus from time immemorial have cremated their dead, and those that are cremated occupy no grave. Their ashes are scattered to the winds, and no place is marked or burdened with their memory."

"The British Government forbids the use of firearms to the common people of India, and so we carried no rifles."

"Whatever we think and feel will colour what we say or do. He who fears, even unconsciously, or has his least little dream tainted with hate, will inevitably, sooner or later, translate these two qualities into his action. Therefore, my brothers, live courage, breathe courage and give courage. Think and feel love so that you will be able to pour out of yourselves peace and serenity as naturally as a flower gives forth fragrance."
" said.

" At first I thought this story was interesting but the more I read, the more bored I became. I'm guessing if you're into raising pigeons, it would be interesting. " said.

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