I like children’s books that sock you in the gut. Not the books that telegraph their hits or do the old one-two punch you can see coming from a mile away. No way, man, I’m talking about the books where you’re reading along, merrily as you please, and then this hammer of a hit comes in from out of the blue and just hocks the wind right out of you. Middle grade fiction, also known as chapter book fiction for kids, can sometimes feel like one long unending stream of samey sameness. Then you get a whiff of something like One Came Home and it does you a world of good. Kids need a little variety. If they’re going to read historical fiction (and they are) then why not give them bloody interesting historical fiction for once? Something with gunplay and counterfeiting and true affection between sisters and gowns and all that stuff? A mystery and quest tale all at once, Timberlake’s latest lifts her from the masses of samey same middle grade onto another level. And kid readers end up the winners.
Agatha is dead, to begin with. Or is she? When the sheriff came home with a body in a ball gown with its features blown all to smithereens (or eaten by wild animals) everyone in Placid, Wisconsin believes that it’s Georgie’s older sister. The one that ran off after Georgie helped to spoil her engagement. Georgie, for the record, doesn’t believe a word of it and she’s going to find the truth. As far as she’s concerned Agatha just has to be alive somewhere, so with a local boy, a mule, some gold coins sewn into her hems, and a gun she can rely on, Georgie sets off to prove her theory. Trouble is, the truth ends up being a whole lot more complicated than she ever could have suspected.
You know, I liked Amy Timberlake when I read her That Girl Lucy Moon back in 2006. That book was a contemporary novel about a girl trying to buck the system in her own particular way. Like Norma Rae with sledding. What it didn’t do was allow Ms. Timberlake to indulge in a character’s voice. Lucy Moon was pleasant and all, but when you left the book you didn’t find her stuck in your head for long periods of time. Georgie has that over Lucy then. She’s the kind of gal who likes to make an impression, even if that means hanging around your grey matter. I don’t regularly wrestle with the mad desire to read a book aloud but somewhere around page 83 I had to stifle an impromptu recitation on the #7 subway train.
Now there is a True Grit feel to the book that is impossible to deny. Not merely because of the can-do attitude of the heroine with her straightforward methods and ahead-of-its-time gumption, but also because the book reads as if the events had taken place long ago in the past. Timberlake adeptly alternates between perspective and the emotions of a 13-year-old barely entering adolescence. Not that this is the first True Grit-ish middle grade I’ve seen since the release of the Cohen Brothers film of the same name. The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence would actually make a sterling companion to One Came Home. Both books involve a mystery and a protagonist with hidden skills in the 1800s West. [By the way, another reader pointed out that the book bears more than a few similarities to [book: Atonement] and where is the line drawn between homage and borrowing? An interesting point.]
In Georgie, Timberlake finds a voice prone to particularly beautiful passages. And if you believe that this book consists of the remembrances of a grown woman looking back then it is easier to accept lines like, “But those images of bells and streams dissolved, and all I saw was a wind stirred by the evil winged creatures from Pandora’s box.” Or, on the next page, “… there’s a difference between feathers and leaves. Feathers claw their way back into the sky, whereas leaves, after flying once, are content to rest on the earth. Agatha? She was a feather.” Later still, “I froze. My body did, anyway. My mind, on the other hand, jumped over the moon and ran off with the spoon.” And finally, “You don’t turn the color of dust unless you’re returning to it.” That’s just a small sample, but it’s a hint of what I mean.
I always thought that passenger pigeons were small. When we talked about them in school, usually in the context of extinct American animals, I pictured birds the size of the pigeons you see in cities today. In point of fact they were “as big as crows” and your average everyday 21st century American citizen really doesn’t know all that much about them. I know that I, for one, did not know about the vast swarms of pigeons that would pass by, yielding a disgusting sleet of bird poop beneath. The sheer history packed into this little book is far beyond mere tales of bird excrement, though. Timberlake has a tendency to spoonfeed her readers history alongside pertinent background information. It’s as if we’d choke if she didn’t get it out in piecemeal. This is not a criticism, mind you, merely an observation. She is quite adept at giving the reader believable and relatable period details that feel right for the time. For example, we learn that Georgie finished her sixth year of winter school the year before and thought it would be fun but in the winter, “no schoolwork made the dark hours endless.” Tell me a kid can’t get behind that.
Now certainly there are passages here that defy credulity. Georgie’s prowess with a gun takes on near superhuman attributes later on in the story, and there may be a danger that this plunges some readers out of the story. I didn’t particularly mind. I like my superheroes, particularly those of the 13-year-old female persuasion. And I very much like those girls who, when given a chance to kill another person, do not do so because their very doubt in God stays their itchy trigger finger. There is also an almost superfluous last chapter to the book that could potentially come right out. It sets the book in history nicely but feels like it comes after all the actions of the characters have been resolved (not to give anything away). Then there is the resolution to whether or not Agatha is truly dead. The answer comes in such a way where it appears that nothing Georgie has done has led to the answer. Dig a little deeper, though, and I think that you could argue that Georgie’s actions did, inadvertently anyway, move the book towards its ultimate resolution (this not giving anything away business is hard going, no?). Finally, there is a very good question as to why no one wonders why the body of Agatha was found wearing a ball gown. That important point isn’t raised by even Georgie at the beginning. Seems a bit of a slip for our proto-detective. Young ladies were not prone for traipsing about the wilderness in green/blue velvet, after all.
So will kids dig it? Some will. Depends on how they come to it. Though my inclination would be to booktalk it to them on the murder mystery solving, if you do that then they might get turned off by the sweeter sister interactions at the start. Best if you inform them straight out that it’s a book about two sisters who love one another very much until one ends up dead in a ditch and the other doesn’t believe in the body. A good honest hook is all this title really needs to get some interest. And I’ve just gotta believe that a kid with a canny ear will pick up on everything Timberlake’s doing. Hopefully anyway. It’s a smart little book that does a small misstep from time to time but ultimately ends up being one of the most gripping little novels you’ll come across. Smart and funny and not something a kid with a yen is likely to put down, it’s a funky little number. Hope to see more books of the past like it in the future.
For ages 10 and up.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
First Sentences: “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.”
Like This? Then Try:
- The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence
- Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
- The Misadventures of Maude March by Audrey Couloumbis
- Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
Other Blog Reviews:
Interviews: I Read Banned Books
- Download the discussion guide here.
- Fellow author Karen Cushman’s also a fan.
- And finally, Timberlake discusses her influences and research.