Monday, September 21, 2015

A Rebel with a Cause Wins the 1928 Newbery Medal


Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon

In 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, establishing Indian and Pakistan as independent nations and marking the end of two hundred years of British rule. 

Dhan Gopal Mukerji, born into the Brahmin caste, didn't live to see his country free from Britain. But during his lifetime, Mukerji worked tirelessly not only for an independent India, but also as an ambassador of Indian culture and the Hindu religion through his writing and public appearances.  

Mukerji published a number of successful works, including poetry, plays, adults novels, and his autobiography Caste & Outcast, but his most famous book was a children's book, the subject of this review:

Book #33: Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon (1927) by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff. 191 pages.

This is not a book to be read quickly, or to read while distracted.

Mukerji is an exceptional writer, and his imagery is among the best in children's literature. Here is his description of wild geese on their journey to Ceylon:

By the way, are not geese the most ungainly birds when they are not flying or swimming? On the water they resemble dreams floating on pools of sleep...

Gay-Neck is a carrier pigeon, raised and trained by the book's narrator, a boy of fifteen born into a Brahmin priest caste family in pre-WWI Calcutta.  The art of domesticating pigeons goes back thousands of years in India, and is widely practiced from the most humble of homes to the most majestic of palaces.

Gay-Neck's father was a tumbler and his mother a carrier. Gay-Neck's name is Chitra-griva, meaning "painted in may colors" and "neck", hence Gay-Neck, or more formally "Iridescence-throated".

The beginning of the book is dedicated to the art of raising pigeons and the nature of their training in developing their sense of direction. The narrator describes the actions of the pigeons in detail, but never anthropomorphically. It is a fascinating account but only part of the larger story.

Gay-Neck is a novel of India, of the Himalayas, the lamaseries, the religions and a philosophy of life very different from the one held by most of its Western readers. The narrator relates his adventures in the jungle and the mountains with his friend Radja, also a young Brahmin priest, and the old hunter Ghond. And, of course, Gay-Neck.

At one point, Gay-Neck has a close brush with death, but is later healed of fear by a lama at a lamasery.  When Gay-Neck's owner inquired as to how this was done, the lama explained:

...that no animal, nor any man, is attacked and killed by an enemy until the latter succeeds in frightening him.  I have sen even rabbits escape hounds and foxes when they keep themselves free of fear. Fear clouds one's wits and paralyses one's nerve. He who allows himself to be frightened lets himself be killed.

The lama went on to explain since he has been without fear for over twenty years, whatever he touches, in this case Gay-Neck, will also become utterly fearless.

There are several chapters where Gay-Neck tells his story in his own words, including his recounting of his friendship with a family of Swifts, whose legs are close to nonexistent and claws little more than hooks, but whose saliva, when it hardens, creates a nearly indestructible nest.

Finally, the day comes when Gay-Neck, trained as a carrier pigeon, along with Ghond, goes to war with the British army in the battlefields of France. Both survive, in their final reconnaissance it is a feral dog that saves them, but both are broken by the experience.

Returning to India, both Ghond and Gay-Neck need to be healed from fear and hate. Ghond travels to a lamasery near Singalila, with Gay-Neck and his owner soon following. After a final adventure with a wild buffalo that had been attacking a nearby village and killing people, the two are healed.

In conclusion, Mukerji writes:

Whatever we think and feel will color 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.
Peace be unto all!

As I stated at the beginning of this review, this is not a book to be read quickly, or when distracted.  I tried to read this book twice before, and was unsuccessful for both those reasons. One of the pitfalls of being a children's librarian is that we read so many books in shorthand, i.e., not really reading the entire book, but surveying its contents with a mental checklist that takes in writing style, characters, age appropriateness, subject matter, acceptably moderate to unacceptably excessive use of a soapbox by an author in a given story, and so on and so forth. Great for considering additions to the collection, bad for truly experiencing the story and the language.

To truly appreciate Mukerji's tale, you have to slow down, sit down, and focus. When I did that, I was entranced.  Hopefully, you will share the same experience, and pass it on to your students.

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon was awarded the 1928 Newbery Medal, the first Asian-American title to win the award.

Dhan Gopal Mukerji was born in 1890 in a village near Calcutta.  His family were members of a Brahmin priest class, and at the age of fourteen entered the priesthood, after two years of living as a beggar as a traditional prerequisite. 

Less than a year into the priesthood, Mukerji realized that it was not the right choice for him and subsequently left the priesthood to attend school, first at the University of Calcutta and then at the University of Tokyo, a move that may have been prompted by his growing involvement in groups supporting Indian independence, and his family's desire to keep him safe.

Mukerji spent several years at the University of California at Berkeley, where he became more involved in radical groups seeking social justice for society's marginalized populations, groups like the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World, known as Wobblies. He then transferred to Stanford, earning a degree in 1914 and marrying fellow student Ethel Ray Dugan. They had one son.

Mukerji's last published work was Fierce Face - The Story of a Tiger published in 1936.  Mukerji died in 1936 in New York City, of suicide. He was forty-six years old.

Books by Dhan Gopal Mukerji at Project Gutenberg

Boris Artzybasheff at the Society of Illustrators


  1. Carol, I've enjoyed your in-depth reviews and never stopped by to say thank you. So thank YOU!!! I discovered this gem several years ago and makes a great read-aloud. Definitely a book to be savored.

  2. I'll ditto Vijaya above. Just what she said... Thank you.