One Came Home by Amy Timberlake. Knopf, 2013. Currently Available.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Face Value: This is an excellent cover, the kind of cover that people ask you about, because it’s intriguing. But at the same time, it’s a cover that looks totally appropriately middle grade, totally historical, and totally cool, all at once. I love the pigeons pulling apart the title (even though in general, pigeons are not something I enjoy), love the landscape. The cover perfectly captures the tone of the book.
Does it Break the Slate? Shattered with a Springfield single shot. Georgie Burkhardt is a determined, fierce protagonist. I respected her stubbornness, her strength, and her skill. I loved her heart and determination. Sure, some of the skills she possesses throughout the book are a little on the superhuman scale, but never in a way that feels untrue to the character being developed. Georgie blows expectations of a young girl at the time out of the water, in a way that is both historically believable and can be deeply resonant with contemporary readers.
Who would we give it to? Wisconsin might not be what we think of as the Wild West, but anyone who likes a good shootout western will be all over this one. In fact, it might be the best middle grade western I’ve ever come across. Pair it with The Misadventures of Maude March, or give it to the True Grit lover in your life.
“’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 sisters first funeral and I knew it wasn’t her last – which is why I left. That’s the long and short of it.”
Georgie Burkhardt knows what she wants, and she says what she thinks. That’s what she prides herself on, as well as her sharp aim with a rifle. But when she says something she should have kept to herself, it leads to her sister running off with pigeoners. Which in turn, two weeks later, leads to a dead body and the aforementioned funeral. But Georgie doesn’t believe that Agatha is dead. So she strikes out in search of the truth.
Amy Timberlake is a terrific writer, and there are some outstanding passages here. She’s particularly good in the way she crafts her character voice. Georgie is a vibrant, dynamic character, with a way of speaking that’s just the right amount of poetic. Like this, for example, when Georgie describes her rage and frustration after Agatha’s funeral:
“Ma’s grief, in particular, wore on me like sandpaper. She dragged her sorrow room to room, and I found out that viciousness nested inside me. When I saw receipts left in the till, or noted that Ma had forgotten to mark down a sale, I mentioned it. I became a fault-finding expert: bins missing their lids, eggs gone bad, a customer left unattended, a boy in a fancy blue serge suit with a fist in the penny candy. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but the part of me that was unredeemed spoke.”
Or her refusal to acquiesce, even when she feels like she’s been beaten
“”Agatha is dead,’ I called out. I threw a crust at the river passing beyond my feet. ‘Isn’t that what you want to hear? I am going home changed. I am a girl with a palatable attitude.’”
Or the profound way she gets at bigger truths without ever being precocious
“Living with uncertainty is like having a rock in your shoe. If you can’t remove the rock, you have to figure out how to walk despite it. There is simply no other choice.”
And there are even some standalone sentences that are so well crafted they send a chill down your spine, like “There is nothing so final as turning around.” Or “You don’t turn the color of dust unless you’re returning to it.” Pure Old West with a fresh character spin.
Plus, Georgie’s Slatebreaking status is not limited to skill with a rifle or stereotypical “spunkiness.” She’s a capable businesswoman who aspires to run her family’s general store. She sticks to what she believes in and believes in herself above most things. I loved her.
Plot-wise, the story is terrifically told. The pacing moves fast and the clues unravel at just the right speed. The twist ending, might come across as too easily won for some readers, but I found it satisfying, and plausible (at least within the world and style of frontier fiction). There’s tons of history embedded into the storytelling too. There were recognizable elements of the prairie, from other things I’ve read, but new facts as well, like the migration of the passenger pigeons. Add this to your middle grade library immediately.
Reviewed from library copy.