Monday, September 18, 2017

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book wasn’t a Newbery medalist, but it did win an honorable mention back in 2013. I have mentioned before that we are listening (in no particularly organized manner) to various Newbery books that look interesting. I can’t remember exactly why I added this one to the list, but it probably just sounded interesting. 

This book is a historical novel, set in Wisconsin in 1871. Actually, the whole book was inspired by the author reading a history of the Passenger Pigeon, a bird that once numbered in the billions in the North America, but was exterminated by the early 1900s by a combination of hunting and habitat destruction. It was one of the first ecological disasters to come to the attention of Americans, and was one of the forces behind the movement to protect places and species

 Audubon's illustration of the Passenger Pigeon. Audubon's book is referenced in One Came Home.

Anyway, Amy Timberlake read about the pigeons, and the idea for a novel started taking shape. The book centers around one of the last big pigeon migrations and nestings. Pigeons are worked into the narrative from beginning to end, as is the question of the ethics of killing.

The book, though, isn’t primarily a story about birds. It is a mystery and psychological coming of age story. It opens in kind of the middle of the story with the funeral of young Agatha Burkhardt. The story is told by Georgie Burkhardt, the younger sister. She is, to put it mildly, an unreliable narrator, and delightfully lacking in self-awareness.

Georgie is convinced that the body that was found isn’t her sister, and that Agatha is alive. The book in fact opens with that idea:

“So it comes to this, I remember thinking on Wednesday, June 7, 1871. The date sticks in my mind because it was the day of my sister’s first funeral, and I knew it wasn’t her last - which is why I left.”

We don’t find out the rest of the back story until near the end of the book though. Georgie tells of the past through a series of flashbacks, but the actions of other characters are hidden for longer. What is clear early on, however, is that there is a love triangle of sorts. Well, more like a love quadrilateral if you count Georgie, who isn’t eager to have her sister marry and move away.

Billy McCabe, the eldest son of the Sheriff, has proposed to Agatha, and she turned him down. Not too long after, the banker, the richest man in town, Mr. Benjamin Olmstead, comes courting Agatha. He has money, and a fantastic library, and Agatha seems smitten.

Then Georgie sees Agatha kiss Billy, and squeals to Mr. Olmstead, who throws Agatha over. Soon afterward, Agatha runs away from home with some pigeon hunters, and a few weeks later, and badly decayed and scavenged body wearing Agatha’s dress is discovered several dozen miles out of town.

Georgie is both sure that Agatha is alive and worried that if Agatha really is dead, that she is responsible for the death. But she isn’t the only one. Georgie runs away herself, having attempted to rent a horse. Instead, Billy McCabe lends her a mule and insists on accompanying her on her quest to find the truth. And Billy has his own secrets and his own guilt.

By the end of the book, the two will have survived a cougar, had a run-in with counterfeiters, discovered useful information, found out just how good of a shot Georgie is, and spent most of the time fighting.

Georgie isn’t the most pleasant character. She is actually fairly obnoxious, honestly, with a perpetual chip on her shoulder. But she does kind of have reasons. She has unresolved guilt, and grief she can’t really face. And she is all of thirteen and has faced with a lot of adversity and responsibility before she can really handle it.

Billy is a great character. He is by no means a perfect person, but he is pretty steady for nineteen. He also has a lot of patience for Georgie, even when she is frustrating. He also has a kind of laconic way of communicating which seems both realistic and suited to his place in the story.

I’ll stop with that as far as plot goes. There are a number of twists, and that is part of the fun. It is quite a suspenseful book - and definitely on the young adult side of the violence line, at least for modern books. My kids were okay with decayed bodies with faces eaten by wild animals, and screaming cougars, and broken ribs, and thumbs shot off. But your kids might vary.

This book started off kind of dark and weird in some ways. (When MY kids mention that it is dark, you know it really is.) But after the start, the mystery took hold, and the humor started showing through. By the end, we were really engrossed in the story, and really cared about the characters. I thought it was a strong book in a year in which we have listened to a lot of good ones. Anyone who says that children’s fiction is all junk this century, unlike the supposed glory days of the 1950s and 1960s probably needs to visit a library and ask for Newbery books. Sure, there is fluff, as there always has been. But the best of today’s fiction has strong, memorable characters, imaginative settings (who saw pigeons as the basis for a story?), and psychologically astute writing. 

I should also mention Tara Sands, whose voice in the audiobook edition is fantastic. She went beyond the printed words to bring the characters to life. Billy in particular was marvelous, sounding like the character should, and totally different from the others. I also appreciated the Wisconsin dialect and accent. This particular book is one of the best audiobooks I have heard this year, and Sands is the reason why.

If your kids can take the unpleasant stuff, give this a try. Otherwise, teens would likely find this one interesting.

I strongly recommend reading the author’s note at the end, which tells of the pigeon inspiration, gives some of the history, and explains what is fiction and what is fact in the book. She certainly did outstanding research, and writes about pigeons with a genuine affection.

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