Richie's Picks: ONE CAME HOME
Richie's Picks: ONE CAME HOME by Amy Timberlake, Knopf, January 2013, 272p., ISBN: 978-0-375-86925-9
"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Til it's gone?"
-- Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"
"Before white settlement, more than one-quarter of the birds in what is now the United States were Passenger Pigeons. They were so abundant that in 1810 Alexander Wilson saw a flock pass overhead that was a mile wide and 240 miles long, containing over two billion birds. That flock could have stretched nearly twenty-three times around the equator. Passenger Pigeons were pretty and brown, with small grayish heads, barrel chests, and long, tapered wings that sent them through the sky at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.
"But they had two problems: they were good to eat and they destroyed crops by eating seeds. Farmers not only shot them, but also cast huge nets over fields to trap them by the thousands. It only took a few decades to wipe out what may have been the most plentiful bird ever to live on the earth. A fourteen-year-old boy named Press Clay Southworth shot the last wild Passenger Pigeon in 1900. The species became extinct in 1914, when Martha, the last captive pigeon, died quietly in the Cincinnati Zoo."
-- Phillip Hoose from THE RACE TO SAVE THE LORD GOD BIRD
"Billy walked over to Storm and mounted her. From the corner of my eye, I observed him, taking in all the details: reins in the hand that grabbed the saddle horn, one foot in the stirrup, and then hoist.
"Doesn't that sound easy? It looked easy too. Except for the fact that I could not hold the saddle horn and skewer the stirrup with a foot at the same time. First, the foot. I swung my left leg at the stirrup -- repeatedly. But the mule kept stepping, skipping, and, once, jumping as my foot neared its target. Finally, by holding the reins, I managed to keep that animal still enough to bull's-eye the stirrup.
"Next? To get atop. Since a mile's distance lay between my hand and the saddle horn, I scaled that mule like he was the tree outside my bedroom window, handhold to handhold. I put one hand on a leather strap and grabbed a brass ring with the other. I heaved myself forward, aiming for the middle but ending with the saddle's stiff, upturned edge lodged in my gut. That brought water to my eyes, but I was on top. After some wiggling -- and a few well-aimed kicks at stirrup holes -- I found myself properly situated.
"The mule did not appreciate my methodology. He skittered sideways, twisting his body around to see me, and finally brayed again."
Thirteen year-old Georgie Burkhardt is such a terrifically drawn character.
If one begins talking about ONE CAME HOME as being a book set in 1871 about Agatha's disappearance, the unidentifiable body that is brought back to Placid Wisconsin clothed in Agatha's dress, and plain-talking, dead-eye shooting, younger sister Georgie's refusal to believe that Agatha is really dead, such a synopsis does this amazing historical fiction-slash-mystery tale a bit of injustice. Sure, on one level, these are, in fact, the facts of the matter. But the story of Georgie taking off to track down her big sister is so filled with humor, poignancy, and with pitch-perfect turns of phrase that this is not merely some story of loss. Even if it such a story when it comes to the birds:
"I took part in it too. I could not resist shooting the Springfield out our bedroom window. The sky was so thick with birds that a single bullet brought five or six tumbling from the sky. I retrieved them from our garden like late-autumn squash."
Being that Passenger Pigeons disappeared in my great-grandparents' time, my trying to grapple with the enormity of what we find here in ONE CAME HOME requires me to think of my own experiences with what it was like, for example, having fireflies everywhere on Long Island in the late fifties, or my recollections of the immense schools of menhaden that I'd see when boating out on Long Island Sound as a kid in the sixties. Sadly, these have become memories that younger generations will never experience, and markers of a degradated planet:
"The muddy brown color of the Long Island Sound and the growing dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay are the direct result of inadequate water filtration — a job that was once carried out by menhaden. An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute. Imagine then the water-cleaning capacity of the half-billion menhaden we "reduce" into oil every year." -- Wikipedia
ONE CAME HOME is a book where I read the first seven chapters, concluded that this will be "on the table" for awards contention next winter, and decided to go back to the beginning to read it really carefully so as to fully enjoy the rich writing and catch all of the clues. The tale is crafted so well that I was more than rewarded for having done so. It features a great main character, great history, great writing, and is frequently a total crack-up. (I am just dying to share the dialogue when her mom finds the bullet holes in Georgie's split skirt. But I'll let you find that for yourself.)
Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/ http://slisweb.sjsu.edu/people/faculty/partingtonr/partingtonr.php