One Came Home
One of the best children's books of early 2013 tells the tale of a young girl whose sister goes missing during the largest passenger pigeon roosting ever.
1871: Placid, Wisconsin. This river town has been invaded by a huge nesting of passenger pigeons on migration. Hoards of honest birders – as well as opportunistic crooks looking to cash in – aren't far behind.
Georgie Burkhardt's family's general store is right on the path of these enthusiastic followers, and they plan to make the most of it. Both the store and Georgie are ready, stocking up on provisions possibly needed to catch falling birds in skillets or shoot straight into the almost-10-mile flock. What Georgie doesn't anticipate about the wild pigeons coming to their town is her older sister running off, possibly with some of the less-than-scrupulous pigeoners.
Or did she? When the sheriff returns a body wearing Agatha's blue-green gown to Placid, everyone, even the girls' mother, assumes it's Agatha. Georgie sees herself as complicit. Did something she said send her sister packing? Or was it the kiss she witnessed and reported? Truly, 13-year-old Georgie can't imagine why anyone would prefer marriage "when you could live life encumbrance-free by running a store with your sister."
Georgie worries that either a revealed secret, a marriage proposal gone awry, high aspirations, or the love of her life caused her sister to run away. Or maybe that's not even Agatha's body buried in that blue-green gown.
So begins the rollicking adventure to discover her sister's fate. And what a story. Georgie Burkhart is a heroine right out of the Old West – a cougar-defying, gun-toting, mule-riding girl with a sense of humor and an evolving sense of honor. With each page, she digs herself deeper into trouble, sometimes bailed out by her companion, Agatha's former true love. Even more often, she's saved by her own wits and guile.
Georgie's memories of Agatha are beautifully, seamlessly woven into the telling of this story. She dreams of a night years ago when she "crept through the house and finally found her in the vegetable garden out back, the wind twisting her nightgown around her ankles….The two of us, in white nightgowns, stood hand in hand between rows of carrots and lettuce. I felt the garden dirt between my toes, and liked the way her hand fit around mine." But just like that night, Agatha has now slipped away as if she weren't even trying to hold on.
Telling the story of the largest pigeon nesting ever recorded was inspired by a nonfiction history of passenger pigeons. A list of sources for the adult reader, including that history, and an interesting author's note are included.
"One Came Home" is a rare gem of a novel. It's an adventure about a most unusual topic, set in a place and time not often written about for readers of any age. The writing is both luminous and laugh-out-loud funny, the author well-informed and passionate. As Georgie remarks about her four-legged traveling companion, this book possesses "a cornucopia of admirable characteristics."
Well done, Amy Timberlake. You've created a character and a great adventure we won't soon forget.
Augusta Scattergood regularly reviews children's books for the Monitor.