One Came HomeOne Came Home
by Amy Timberlake

Every year about this time, the Newbery Award children’s books are announced. This is always my cue to get upstairs into the children’s room again, a place I seem to visit too rarely since my nieces have grown up. I ended up reading two of this year’s books, Paperboy by Vince Vawter and One Came Home by Amy Timberlake. Both were interesting historical novels, but of the two, this is the one I’m writing about, because it’s the one my brain hasn’t yet quite let go of. My head is so full of the wings of millions of passenger pigeons.

The setting is a small town in rural Wisconsin in 1871. The narrator is a 13-year-old girl called Georgie, daughter and granddaughter of the general store keepers. Georgie is a crack shot with her grandfather’s old hunting rifle, a bit of a hoyden, and a born haggler who looks forward to the day when she will be in charge of the family business. She also adores her older sister Agatha, a quiet scholarly girl who longs to go away to college and study what was then called Natural History, though the family has ruled college out of the question. That leaves Agatha chafing and weighing local suitors, while Georgie meddles and interferes.

Then come the passenger pigeons. This is where the book really took flight for me. The story which might have been another nice but ordinary girls’ novel, suddenly turned into something surprising, fascinating, and startling, when the pigeons came to town. I’ve always heard of passenger pigeons, of course. I knew that there were once many of them, and that they were hunted into extinction. But what had before been a bare awareness of dead facts has become very real and alive after reading the vividly evocative descriptions in this book. The birds came by the millions, frightening in their intensity and power, like the birds in a Hitchcock movie scene. Feathers seem so ethereal, yet millions of flapping feathers raise hurricanes, create a living avian storm that can knock people over.

The pigeons seemed so real, not abstractions of history or ecology. They were like all real things, at the same time beautiful, annoying, vulnerable, dangerous, poetic and smelly. They were what they were, beyond judgment or symbolism. When they came to town, they were a bit like one of the plagues, leaving the woods a mess of feathers and bird droppings for miles. They were destructive and voracious. Yet at the same time, they were breathtaking in their individual and collective beauty, and that must have impressed many people who saw them in their glory, even without the awareness of coming extinction as an eye-opener. The book made me see the iridescent clouds of birds, feel the wind of their flight, even as it also made me shrink from their ominous clamoring beaks and the rain of their droppings.

There’s a scene early in the book that stays with me. Everyone has fled indoors as the cloud of birds descends on the town. Even the bold Georgie shrinks from the feathered tempest. Then Georgie watches as Agatha dresses in old clothes and an apron, takes up a parasol, and walks straight into the bird cloud. The birds are parted in their flight, as the flight reshapes itself to avoid this obstruction, wildly circling Agatha as though she were a tree or a fence in their way. And Agatha begins whirling in circles in the midst of the birds, whirling and whirling, in a sort of ecstatic imitation of flight, while Georgie drinks in the vision. Yet when Agatha holds out a hand for Georgie to venture out and join her, Georgie can’t go, frozen where she is by fear of the craziness out there.

Where the passenger pigeons come, the hunters also come. The town makes a killing as the hunters make their own killing. Guns bang away day after day, bringing down multiple birds at one shot. Coopers build barrels to pack preserved birds for shipment to market, storekeepers sell ammunition and food and supplies to the hunters, boarding house keepers pack people in at whatever rates the market will bear. When the frenzy ends, when the pigeons and hunters have gone, the town has an exhausted, picked-over feel. And in the aftermath, Georgie discovers that Agatha is also gone, last seen running away with a wagonload of pigeon hunters.

The story turns back to its original line of plot at this point, as though remembering that there must be some story to tell other than that of the pigeons. Georgie blames herself for her sister’s flight, as she had meddled in Agatha’s love life. Then the sheriff returns to town with a body, possible to identify only by its hair color and clothing. But that’s enough for almost everyone to say, “It’s Agatha”. All except Georgie, who refuses to accept that her sister is dead. Determined to find out where Agatha has gone, Georgie runs away herself, with a stubborn mule for transportation, grandfather’s Springfield rifle for protection, and one of Agatha’s old beaux for a guide. Her plan is to follow the trail Agatha took with the pigeon hunters, asking questions until she finds her sister.

Georgie’s subsequent adventures include an eye-to-eye showdown with a mountain lion, a shootout with a counterfeiting gang, and the mystery of another runaway girl with red hair. In the end, she returns home, having done some growing-up along the way. The way the various plot points finally shake out is not too surprising. Agatha has run away to college. The other missing girl is the body that had been buried as Agatha. The counterfeiting gang is broken up. Georgie attends her grandfather’s funeral and settles down to help run the family general store. News arrives of dreadful fires in the north woods of Wisconsin, the same day as a big fire in Chicago. The Wisconsin fire survivors drift through Georgie’s town, and the townsfolk reach out to help them. The story settles quietly to its end.

But the birds — they stay with me. After I finished reading One Came Home, I went looking for more information about the passenger pigeons.  I stumbled onto a book written in 1907 by William Mershon, entitled simply The Passenger Pigeon. It was writtten over 35 years after the great pigeon flight of 1871 described in the children’s novel. By the time Mershon wrote, the pigeons were rarely sighted, and fears for their future were driving people to question what had been done. How could such a plentiful bird become so rare in barely a generation? I’ve already put “dibs” on the Mershon book at LibriVox. As soon as my current two projects are cleared off my plate, I’m going to read about the passenger pigeons next.

Meanwhile, I open One Came Home again, before I take it back to the library, and browse the chapters describing the pigeons.

Birds, birds, birds — a wing, an eye, a beak — they flew so fast I couldn’t pick out one bird. The sky was a feathered fabric weaving itself in and out, unraveling before my eyes. I felt dizzy. I could barely breathe. … Have you ever seen how iron filings circle a magnet? That was what this looked like. Except it wasn’t still and dead like iron; it was rushing, pulsing, and made of feathers, pumping hearts, and lungfuls of air.

I’m listening to wind and snow outside the house tonight, but it sounds like a whirl of birds in my imagination.