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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

One Came Home

ONE CAME HOME by Amy Timberlake came out way back in January and has waited patiently for some attention on this blog.  It falls into a subgenre that I think on the whole is overrated and overrepresented: Spunky/Feisty/Quirky Girl with a Southern/Country/Folksy Voice and a Dead/Missing/Absent Mother (or in this case Sister).  When it’s done well, though, I’m as much of a sucker as anyone.  I’m going to spell out the couple of reasons that this one slips from Newbery to Notables in my estimation, and let others argue its defense below in the comments.

First of all, there are some plausibility problems.  I never believed that anybody–not the sheriff, not her family–would let the girl identify the alleged body of a sister who’s had her head shot off.  Some people had a hard time believing that she could be such a crack shot; for me, it was that the girl who is a crack shot has probably ridden a horse before.  Minor problems, these, but nagging ones nevertheless.

My second reservation is that the focus of the book seemed diffuse.  Was it a mystery–or a coming of age story?  Did the book lack the proper closure without a reunion with the sister?  Again, something just seemed a bit off to me, and as with COUNTING BY 7s, I would need a reread to figure out what I really think about it, and whether it’s a serious problem or not.

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I haven’t read this book in a couple of months but it’s going on my list of favorites for the year. I find it believable that she couldn’t ride but she could shoot. A lot of people who moved out west as homesteaders had oxen pull their wagons not horses because horses were expensive back then. It makes sense that she would know how to shoot to hunt but not ride. Plus, my recollection is that she was with her mother when they identified the body not alone. I remember her insistently tagging along, not identifying the body by herself. I have much more trouble with the implausibilities in Counting by 7’s. The premise of that book is completely unbelievable to me. I like the coming of age story in this book, it reminded me of the girl in the movie True Grit and I thought her voice was true to the time she lived in. Having never served on a Newbery committee, I don’t know if this fits the “distinguished writing” criteria, but it did for me as a reader. I read it back in January too and it’s one of the books that has stuck in my mind all year.

  2. I loved this book while reading it, especially how Timberlake characterizes Georgie. I didn’t feel there were too many inplausibilities in her- at least noting I felt was substantial. The horse thing…ehh, yea, she probably would have been able to ride, but again, not a deal breaker. The body identification, I chalked that up to the less “child-sensitive” time in which the story was intended to depict.
    Immediately after reading, my major concerns were with the ending. Without giving too much away, I felt that Timberlake quickly tied up a LOT of plot points, except for the one I really cared about as a reader (Georgie and her sister being reunited). I realize feelings of closure are not Newbery-significant, however, I think it does speak to plot development, making it a potential big problem.

  3. Melissa McAvoy says:

    I agree the book is notable not exceptional. I can buy the not riding and I loved that she was a crack shot. What I don’t believe is that a cougar would stand still to be hit in the head. What I know not to be true is that a shot bird would bleed copiously enough to stain a coat. What I predicted from that detail was that Georgie would have to give up hunting. I regretted that such an iconoclastic and prickly character had to renounce a sport she loved in order to conform to a tired contemporary p.c. reality. I did appreciate the text provided her ample personal reasons to do so, but I still regretted a missed opportunity for a favorable portrayal of hunters.

  4. Sheila Welch says:

    I read this one shortly after publication, so I have a general sense of what I feel is distinguished about it in terms of Newbery criteria. (I know I tend to wander off to talk about covers, readers’ taste, or other non-Newbery points.)

    Georgie comes across a notch above the typical spunky girl character. She faces a mountain lion and shoots off a guy’s thumb! Her use of language is elaborate and engaging. It reminds me of the descriptive writing in letters that are still around from the 19th century. So the author actually helps create the setting through the strong, authentic voice of her character. Billy and some of the other characters aren’t quite as vividly portrayed, but the story is in first person, so I don’t think that’s a problem. I think Agatha, who’s already missing on the first page, is well drawn, with readers learning more about her in little flashbacks.

    The setting is unique. What other book has scene after scene in which bird poop is either falling from the sky or mucking up the ground? Other Information about the pigeons is seamlessly woven into this setting.

    Ah . . . style. Here the writing itself stands out. It is sometimes ornate but delivered with a bit of humor. I can imagine this being a book to read aloud to a class of sixth graders or to our families around the dinner table. Here are a couple of examples: “My world snapped into a box. The air staled. A kind of sleet (the bird’s dung) fell from that winged ceiling. ” Or, “And that dress? The blue-green color caught your eye the way a hummingbird does: flicking in front of you, capturing your attention, then — suddenly–disappearing.”

    Now I get to theme and plot. Never give up? Perseverance pays? Follow your dreams and let others follow theirs? Themes can elude me, but this one seems a bit murky. However, it’s an action story with great writing, so I am not disturbed. The plot was, in my opinion, a bit convoluted and fragmented. I think it’s much more focused than Timberlake’s first novel (I know that’s not the committee’s interest), and as I was reading this one, it flowed nicely. I feel the way Meghan does about the ending. Another plot issue or maybe setting or information problem is a thirteen-year-old girl traveling with a nineteen-year-old boy. I know it’s explained but still seems unlikely to happen in 1870s Wisconsin.

    Definitely, I think, has a chance for Newbery recognition. I also like the cover..

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    In addition to TRUE GRIT, another book that came to mind while reading this one was JACOB HAVE I LOVED. I think ONE CAME HOME is a truly effective portrayal of sibling relations, and this drives the entire book. I like how everything is written through one sister Georgie but the other sister Agatha’s presence is nevertheless so overwhelming that the reader can understand and sympathize with everything that motivates the characters and is thus propelled along, wanting resolution as badly as Georgie.

    As I read this one, I kept switching back and forth between “not quite” and “Newbery-contender” because, to me, there were parts that stood out as so well-written that I wished the rest were like that. In the end, the multiple endings (this book could have ended in at least 3 different spots) seemed like too much of a structural weakness, especially as a final impression. It doesn’t displace my top 3, but it might be #4.

    • Thank you, Leonard, for bringing up those endings. Those are the most problematic part of ONE CAME HOME for me. I was very impressed with the strong writing and Georgie’s voice, and the inclusion of the pigeons. And then come those endings. Interestingly, I felt like Agatha’s letter was too much. Not only did I not need them to be reunited, but the information overload hit way too many plot points for plausibility. Agatha doesn’t know that they think she’s dead, yet somehow she details the handoff of the dress, inquires about her grandfather, etc. etc.? A telegram, or a briefer letter, or a detailed letter that didn’t conveniently spell out what we’ve been piecing together on our own would have been a stronger ending. And then there’s the refugees-from-the-fire ending that has zip to do with the rest of the book and throws some acknowledged geographic implausibility into the mix. The (to me) unnecessary endings really disappointed me, because up until that point I would have argued this one as a strong contender. But including 3 extra endings and still leaving some readers without a sense of closure? That’s a pretty fatal flaw, for me.

  6. The setting was extremely well done. I especially loved the way that the author handled the differing worldviews of the people in 1871 and the modern world when it comes to the mass hunting of animals. Georgie is nonchalant (for most of the book anyway) about hunting so many, many pigeons, and while the sight and smell of millions of rotting pigeon heads and destroyed nests disgust her, it is an evisceral reaction, not a philosophical one. On the other hand, however, the descriptions of the destroyed nesting ground is clearly disturbing to the modern reader, even without the knowledge that the passenger pigeon was hunted to extinction.

    The characterization here was good. Although Agatha was a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, that makes sense because we are seeing her solely through the eyes of her adoring younger sister. Georgie herself, stubborn and willful and filled with many angry and jealous emotions, came off as perfectly human.

    The last bit about the fire survivors seemed a bit tacked on to me. I can see how it helps to drive home Georgie’s theme of forgiveness, but I thought it was a little heavy-handed at that point, and not entirely related, more like a fascinating story the author didn’t want to leave out. As several others have said, it’s as if the book ended several times.


    Is it wrong of me that I sort of wish the sister had died? Or, even better, that we just never found out? The coincidences involved were simply too great for it to be realistic. I think the story would have been stronger if it turned out that Agatha had been killed, but Georgie was still able to find redemption for herself through Billy’s confession and her knowledge that her own rash actions have been forgiven.

  7. I agree completely with Amanda and Aly’s assessment of the ending of this book. I LOVED it and felt it was a top contender until the last 20 pages. The letter from Agatha was such a let-down. It was a complete disappointment in the person of Agatha. She was an illustrious character, portrayed through Georgie’s eyes–larger than life. The letter revealed her to be something much less wonderful–Selfish? Small-minded? Giddy almost? Not nearly as deep and gritty as the sister who created her for us throughout the book. I wanted Agatha to be found; I wanted that resolution, but an unresolved ending or a dead sister would have been easier to stomach than the ending we were given. A fatal flaw indeed. I’m still sad about it.

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