Meir Shalev

A Pigeon and a Boy

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A Pigeon and a Boy Summary

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The acclaimed Israeli writer Meir Shalev published his award-winning novel A Pigeon and a Boy in 2006. Translated into English by Evan Fallenberg the following year, the novel follows the twin stories of a homing pigeon handler during the 1948 War of Independence, when Israel was formed during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine; and also of a middle-aged man in contemporary times, who tries to figure out where and how to belong. The novel stresses the theme of finding one’s home – like the homing pigeons, which do so unerringly, the characters are trying to get to the places where they will feel at peace.

Although the novel tells the stories of its two main characters in alternating chapters, this summary will focus on each separately.

A boy whose nickname is “the Baby” grows up on a kibbutz, learning how to handle pigeons on the farm. When he is older, he moves to the big city of Tel Aviv, where he meets “the Girl,” another pigeon trainer at the Zoo. Never identified except by these nicknames, the Baby and the Girl fall in love, but their passion for each other is overtaken by world events – by the War for Independence that results in the creation of Israel. The young, small Israeli army decides that homing pigeons will make an ideal communication method, so the Baby is drafted as a pigeon handler despite being pudgy and somewhat ungainly, not a typical soldier. Before he leaves for duty, he and the Girl take turns teaching each other’s pigeons how to find the other’s home, so that they will be able to communicate when he is away.

In the middle of the war, the Baby is shot. As he bleeds out, his very last act is to send out one of his special pigeons with a message for the Girl – a gift of love that is so unparalleled that it results in one of the book’s pieces of magical realism: when the pigeon lands on the Girl’s balcony, it speaks to her.

In the present day, we meet the middle-aged Yair Mendelsohn, who works in Jerusalem as a tour guide who specializes in bird-watching trips. During one of his tours, he meets an old Palmach fighter – one of the elite Plugot Maḥatz strike force – who fought in the 1948 War of Independence. As they discuss birds, the veteran tells Yair about the Baby, his pigeons, and his last act as a dying man.

Yair thinks about this story as he considers his own life. Although it is not clear what has gone wrong between them, his marriage to his beautiful American wife, Liora is falling apart. In general, Yair doesn’t feel at home in his life – the apartment he and Liora share doesn’t have the feeling of home that his mother Raya always insisted was of primary importance.

Yair was always very close to Raya, who has recently passed away from cancer, but whom he continues talking to in constant ongoing conversations in his imagination. From Raya, Yair learned the need for a home where one could express oneself fully, a home that had enough of a presence that you would say, “Hello, house,” every time you walked into it and then wait for the house to welcome you. He also absorbed her decision-making style – she would never choose an option without first making a “for and against” chart.

Yair’s closeness and similarity to his mother are in contrast to his alienation from the rest of his family. Yair has always felt self-conscious about not looking like anyone else in the family: Raya, Yourdad, and Benjamin are all tall blondes, while he is short and swarthy. His pediatrician father, whom Yair and his brother Benjamin called Yourdad as a joke about the way Raya referred to him, was loving but distant. Unlike Raya, Yourdad’s outlook on the world didn’t revolve around for and against, but, instead, relied on classifying everything into categories and then working to fix what is broken. These differences eventually led to the dissolution of the marriage, as Raya left Yourdad after making a “for and against” decision. Now, Yourdad has dementia and is no longer aware that Raya has died.

Raya’s dying bequest to Yair is a large sum of money that is specifically to be used to build a house of his own. To help him, Yair gets in touch with Tirzah, a childhood girlfriend who is now a contractor. As the distance between him and Liora grows, Yair falls in love again with Tirzah. Their passion results in a house that finally satisfies Yair’s need for a home.

As the storylines converge, it becomes clear that before she married Yourdad, Raya was the pigeon handler in the story about the Baby and the Girl. Yair doesn’t look like his family because he is actually the son of the Baby – a fact that is revealed to him in another bit of magical realism having to do with pigeons.

After considering what to do, in the end, Yair chooses to leave Tirzah and to go back to Liora. He is unwilling to blow up his life in the same way that his mother had blown up hers. The house that he and Tirzah built without Liora’s input can now be their home.