Monday, March 11, 2013

2014 Contenders: One Came Home, by Amy Timberlake

“People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just 14 years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.” -Charles Portis, True Grit

"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. That's the long and short of it." -Amy Timberlake, One Came Home

It has been an unusually eventful springtime in Placid, Wisconsin. A tremendous flock of passenger pigeons has nested in the woods nearby, bringing business and strangers to town. When the pigeons are gone, so is Georgie Burkhardt's sister Agatha - run off with some shady pigeoners and maybe dead. A body has been found in the woods, anyway, and it was wrapped in part of Agatha's dress. Georgie isn't ready to believe the worst, though, so she grabs her Springfield single shot and her copy of The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-Book for Overland Expeditions and sets off on her sister's trail. 

Like her closest literary kin, True Grit's Mattie Ross, thirteen-year-old Georgie's voice is delightfully strong and distinct. She is plainspoken, practical, and often quick-tempered, covering up her adolescent uncertainty with bluff and bravado (this is especially effective when we are privy to the dissonance between Mattie's thoughts and her words). Timberlake doesn't fall into the common trap of making her wiser than her years, though. Mattie has loads of courage and astonishing aim with a rifle, but she has no idea how to ride a horse or plan a trip. More crucially, she doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut. In short, she's thirteen.

Timberlake is an impressive sentence-level prose stylist. Describing a cave, she has Georgie say, "There's no pretending a cave is a proper room - it's the belly of the whale, the innards of a clam, a bubble, a rock-hard belch. Everything is poured out and dried sideways or upside down." One of the difficulties of first-person narration is that all the information about setting has to come from the narrator's point-of-view. I've read a lot of books where the landscape description sounds all wrong coming from the narrator's mouth. That's not the case here - Georgie's descriptions strike just the right balance between lyrical and down-to-earth. They also give the impression that she's more poetic than she imagines herself to be, which adds depth to the character.

Where One Came Home falters is in the pacing, and I think that may stem from the disconnect between the ostensible plot and the real story of the book. On the surface, it's a book about a missing sister. In reality, (though there is plenty of action) the emotional center of the book is Georgie's inner journey. After the resolution of that thread (and it resolves beautifully), the book feels finished and the final chapters are anticlimactic. The resolution of Agatha's story almost feels like an afterthought.

This is a strong, strong book, though, with a strong, strong heroine - and (like True Grit) it doesn't require a love interest to keep it afloat.

Published in January 2013 by Random House


  1. I love this book, but I wish it had ended sooner. The final chapter, in particular, felt unnecessary.

    1. Agreed. And it was weird that the solution to the mystery came after all of the book's momentum had petered out.