Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1928)


Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon begins, at least in my copy, with a brief dedicatory letter from the author to one Suresh Chandra Banerji, Esq. A portion of this letter reads:

"For a pigeon, life is a repetition of two incidents: namely, quest of food and avoidance of attacks by its enemies. If the hero of the present book repeats his escapes from attacks by hawks, it is because that is the sort of mishap that becomes chronic in the case of pigeons."

This is what I believe is called "giving away the game." The plot, such as it is, is mostly Gay-Neck (so named for the patch of iridescent feathers on his throat) flying, being attacked by something, and then escaping. To be fair, Mukerji does switch it up more than his note lets on -- for variety, Gay-Neck not only escapes from hawks, but also owls, a buzzard-hawk called a Baz, and WWI airplanes trying to shoot him down.

There is a sort of larger story, in which Mukerji, who tells this story as if it's autobiographical, hatches Gay-Neck from an egg, trains him in homing, rehabilitates him from injury, and finally sends him off from India to the European front in WWI to work as a carrier pigeon. This last part traumatizes Gay-Neck so that, after a particularly harrowing mission, he refuses to fly anymore, and is invalided back home, until he's cured of his fear at a Buddhist(?) monastery. 

The most interesting parts, though, have to do with Mukerji himself. His parents live in Calcutta, but spend part of the year in the Himalayan village of Dentam. Mukerji goes up there with them, but spends all of his time out in the jungle with a hunter named Ghond -- whose connection to Mukerji is never explained -- who teaches him to do things like hunt enraged water buffalo, hide from crazed elephants, and climb up to eagles' nests. Why is he learning to do this? Who knows! What do his parents think? They don't seem to think anything, until the very end when Gay-Neck comes back ahead of Mukjeri, and his parents worry that their son might be dead. I read the entire book, and I still have no idea why this city kid and pigeon fancier is spending all of his free time reenacting Kipling with this guy. 

Gay-Neck wasn't Mukerji's first book, and since one of the earlier titles is called Ghond, the Hunter, it's possible that this gets explained there. But in the form that Gay-Neck was published in...let's just say that I've read The Grey King, The High King, and Dicey's Song, and this might still be the Newbery that "stands alone" the least. 

Be that as it may, Gay-Neck was also a milestone in this history of the Newbery Medal. Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who had emigrated the US as a young man, would become the first person of color to win the award. (He would, alas, also be the only one to win the award until Virginia Hamilton in 1975(!); it's an unfortunate truth that sometimes progress happens slowly.) The one classic from the year, A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six, wasn't eligible, so Gay-Neck was probably a fair choice, as odd a book as it is.

Also, this is just a guess, but I think it's safe money that Gay-Neck is Bert's favorite Newbery winner.

"If you tell me more about this Ghond fellow, I'll show you my paper clip collection."

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Miss Hickory, by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1947)

Rachael warned me before I started Miss Hickory that it was a "weird book," in a tone somewhere between amusement and caution. My friends, let me tell you -- she knew what she was talking about. My journey through the Newbery winners has led me through a society of superintelligent rats, onto a planet ruled by an Orwellian disembodied brain, past what might be the most surreal version of Kentucky possible, and right to the gates of a cemetery where a child is being raised by the dead -- and I'm not sure anything I've encountered has been half as bizarre as Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's 1947 medalist. 
Let me try to explain what goes on in this one. The titular Miss Hickory is, for the second time in Newbery history, a protagonist who's a sentient doll. But, where Hitty was just a normal doll, albeit one that possessed consciousness, Miss Hickory is perfectly capable of walking around, eating and drinking, and carrying on conversations. As the book opens, Miss Hickory's owner, a girl named Ann, has left for the winter with her family and abandoned Miss Hickory, meaning that our heroine is going to have to fend for herself. A crow friend of hers finds Miss Hickory an abandoned robin's nest to stay in, and from there, the novel proceeds episodically. Miss Hickory helps some hen-pheasants form a Ladies' Aid Society; rescues a frog who's stuck in the ice; and, after some dithering, joins animals from near and very, very far, living and dead, for a procession to the barn, where the kind of Christmas Miracle that your aunt might share a story about on Facebook is taking place. There's also an entire chapter in which Miss Hickory doesn't appear at all, in which Doe and Fawn do their best to reenact the first five minutes of Bambi

Up until about three quarters of the way through Miss Hickory, it's weird and not all that exciting -- but not much weirder or less exciting than, say, Rabbit Hill. The book keeps insisting that Miss Hickory is stubborn and hardheaded, but I didn't think the evidence was that persuasive -- at one point, she refuses to go with the barn cat to see the great entertainment of a cow being given medicine, and, because she doesn't think anything is going to happen until she sees the procession of the animals, she makes it into the barn, but doesn't get to actually see the Christmas Miracle. But then, just as winter is ending, she runs into a squirrel who's done a bad job storing enough nuts to make it through the winter.

At this point, reader, the squirrel, crazed with hunger, RIPS OFF MISS HICKORY'S HEAD AND EATS IT. As he chews, the decapitated head gives a soliloquy to her body, telling her body how selfish and stubborn she's been for her whole life. Once the head has been fully devoured, Miss Hickory's body, now free of all care, climbs up to the top of an apple tree, sticks her neck into a crack in a branch, and becomes fully grafted into said tree. Later, Ann comes back, and finds that Miss Hickory's body, now fused to the tree, has made it so this previously unfruitful apple tree is now flowering and growing again. Miss Hickory's body, which is also in full flower, resolves to grow an apple just for Ann. End scene.

I have no idea what prompted this mescaline-infused fever dream of a conclusion. I have even less of an idea why Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, her editor, or the Newbery committee thought it was a good idea. The committee named five Honor books, so it seems to me that the 1947 field wasn't considered a weak one, although I'm unfamiliar with all five, and none of them are considered "classics." The best-known eligible books from the year are probably a pair of picture books, Scuffy the Tugboat and The Little Fur Family, and The Littlest Angel, which is the kind of book that never makes any lists of critics' favorites, but which, according to Publishers Weekly, was the 15th-best-selling children's book of the entire 20th century.

I honestly don't know what to think of Miss Hickory. I don't think it's particularly good, or that it works in any meaningful sense -- but I'll be danged if it isn't memorable, a book that I'll have a much harder time forgetting than most of its peers. And I suppose that's its own kind of accomplishment.