Author Amy Timberlake's interest in birding comes through in her latest middle-grade novel, One Came Home, out this month from Knopf. Author Amy Timberlake's interest in birding comes through in her latest middle-grade novel, One Came Home, out this month from Knopf. Set in the town of Placid, Wisconsin, in the 1870s, 13-year-old Georgie is a straight-shooting girl – both with her rifle and her mouth. And that mouth is the reason her big sister, Agatha, takes off with "pigeoners" tracking the massive passenger pigeon migration. When the sheriff turns up with an unidentifiable body that's wearing Agatha's teal ball gown, the town assumes the worst. Everyone, that is, except Georgie.
This is not Amy's first rodeo – she's the author of the middle-grade That Girl Lucy Moon (Hyperion, 2006), which was a 2007 Amelia Bloomer Book, and the picture book The Dirty Cowboy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), winner of a Golden Kite Award and Parents Choice Gold Medal.
Question: One Came Home is set in Wisconsin in 1871. How did you come to settle on this place and time period?
Amy Timberlake: 1871 Wisconsin found me more than I found it. See, I'm a birder. I was reading A.W. Schorger's The Passenger Pigeon – minding my own business so to speak. This was a scholarly tome written in the '50s, and I wasn't expecting to find a novel in it. But then I turned a page, saw a map of Wisconsin, and covering a large swath of the map was this "nesting" in 1871. The historian said it was one of the largest passenger pigeon nestings in recorded history. I'm from Wisconsin, and this was news to me. I was stunned – absolutely stunned. Why didn't I know about this? That's when I knew I had to write about this. And when you add in the tumult of a billion crow-sized birds whizzing around at 60 mph – well, that seemed like a perfect setting for a story. Doesn't it sound good to you? I mean, it's like something out of science fiction, except it actually happened.
Q: The protagonist, Georgie, is deeply devoted to her sister, Agatha. Can you speak to sibling relationships and what you wanted to convey in the telling of their story? What did you draw from in your own life?
AT: I do have a younger brother, and I do love him. In kindergarten I brought him as my "show and tell" item. Yes, he was my favorite possession, as only a younger brother can be to an older sister. Man, he was a good sport!
In the book, I did want to explore the transition sibling relationships make as the siblings grow up. There comes a point where you've got to let your sibling be themselves and accept them for who they are.
Q: A memorable part of One Came Home involves passenger-pigeon migration and the massive scope of these birds' flight – sometimes spanning 10 miles at a time and blackening the sky. How does this play in the story and why?
AT: It's a setting – a living, breathing setting. Once you've got such a dynamic setting, suddenly there's a lot of material to comment on. It helps develop the characters too. Both Agatha and Georgie take a keen interest in the natural world, but in opposing directions: Georgie takes to hunting, and Agatha is a self-taught naturalist. In addition, the nesting draws all those "pigeoners" (pigeon hunters) too. And then there's the compromises that the nesting forces on all of those that live near it – the noise, the pigeon dung, etc.
Q: Does One Came Home have an environmental message? Is Georgie at heart an environmentalist? Agatha too?
AT: If you write a historical story where an extinct species plays a prominent role, the absence of that species in the 21st century echoes – there's nothing that can be done to avoid it. What I mean is that as a 21st century reader, you're reading One Came Home knowing the birds are never coming back.
But as the author, I did not want to write a "message" book, or an "environmental" book. One Came Home is first and foremost a Western, an adventure, and it's also got a mystery tucked in there for fun. It is enough – I think – to write the passenger pigeons into the book and let that speak for itself.
I also tried to be careful to not put 21st century thoughts in my characters. (I may not have always succeeded, but I did try.) Agatha's interest in the natural world is based on people from the 19c. In addition, all of my characters would be well-versed (literally) in biblical teachings about respecting life from the Christian tradition, so I let that guide me. Neither Georgie nor Agatha would call themselves an "environmentalist."
Am I an environmentalist? Sure. On a personal level, one of the questions I am grappling with is how we deal with animals that impact our human lifestyles. For instance, what do we do about grizzly bears, polar bears, cougars, and other large animals that need huge swaths of land to roam in? Are we ready to give up land? In the case of climate change (which impacts lots of animals) are we willing to make changes? These are changes that are uncomfortable at a personal level. They require sacrifice.
No one (and I'm including myself here) likes sacrifice . . . I don't have any answers here, just that I'm not seeing anything in 21st century American life that suggests we'd be ready to welcome back something as tumultuous as the passenger pigeon. It's like we no longer possess the flexibility and tolerance for wild-ness – we need the natural world to be exactly as we want it to be. (On second thought, maybe we never possessed this tolerance. We've spent significant chunks of our history trying to tame Wilderness.) Still, I want to hope that I can change myself and that I can learn to take all the inhabitants of this world into consideration as I make choices. Legislation is part of this too, but it seems like it's gotta happen on the ground before it'll happen in Congress.
Q: What themes and messages do you like to explore in your writing? What ideas do you want to bring up for young readers to consider in their own lives?
AT: Readers are the ones that get to decide about themes and messages (I think). But I'd like it if kids read One Came Home and, as a result, started thinking and talking about extinct species. This'll lead them to thinking about animals that are threatened with extinction, which will lead to questions, and questions will lead (I hope) to good things.
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