"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."|