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one came home

14 july 2016

One Came Home is a brisk, offbeat suspense novel that won Amy Timberlake both a Newbery Honor and the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile.

I'm going to list it under "Western," not "Crime," though, because the more I think about the book, the more strongly it seems to follow conventions of the western, not those of mystery stories. There is crime in One Came Home, and there is a mystery. And it's not set in the most archetypal of Western venues. It's 1871 in an invented village in rural Wisconsin. There isn't an Indian in the book, and any cattle are incidental. But there are horses and mules, rifles, bad men, mountain lions, campfires and quests.

One Came Home reminds me vaguely of True Grit – so vaguely that I'm not sure I want to bring it up. Here goes, though: intrepid 13-year-old girl enlists the help of an older man to find a missing family member. The man, Billy McCabe, is only 19 himself, so there's no Rooster Cogburn in the story. But the original True Grit was also set a little ways to the east of typical oater territory (Arkansas) and is ultimately about the grit that Mattie Ross finds in herself – just as One Came Home is about the narrator Georgie Burkhardt and her self-assessment under stress.

Georgie sets out to find her runaway sister Agatha. The problem is that Agatha has already been found, by Billy's father Sheriff McCabe. And Agatha is quite dead: they've identified the body and held her funeral. Georgie can't accept it, so she sets out to track her sister – to, and beyond, the spot where she died on the road.

Billy, once Agatha's sweetheart, won't let Georgie go alone, so the novel takes on a buddy-story feel to it. Like any two western heroes on the trail, they are beset by animals and the weather, and that's before they meet up with con men and counterfeiters. Georgie's ace card is her impeccable shooting eye, which makes up for all her other failures as a tracker and bivouacker.

Remarkable, and providing the offbeat aspects I mentioned above, is One Came Home's concern with ecology. In particular, Georgie and her 21st-century author Timberlake are fascinated with passenger pigeons. Georgie calls them "wild pigeons," and given her skill with a rifle, at first she shoots them like everyone else. Her grandfather turns a tidy profit at his general store by outfitting "pigeoners," the flocks of humans who descend on the flocks of birds to convert them into fast food. Yet as the novel goes on, Georgie rethinks her culture's commitment to gun violence. Not till she's faced with shooting some of her own kind does she realize that it might not be a great idea to shoot so many members of another species, either.

I won't spoil the plot of a book (that does a fair amount of foreshadowing all by itself). Suffice to say that even when the mysteries of One Came Home clear up, the book remains quirky and readable. Its history rings true, and its plot formulas don't wear thin. And you'll like its distinctive, growing heroine.

Timberlake, Amy. One Came Home. New York: Knopf [Random House], 2013. PZ 7 .T479One