***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
I see why OCH has gotten so many starred reviews from professional journals. Despite some minor flaws, it's beautifully atmospheric, it has interesting period and historical detail (including the hook of the passenger pigeon migration), a genuinely spunky narrator, and it doesn't condescend. The story is a pleasing blend of character development spiced up with mystery and action.
All those wonderful things make it hard for me to admit: this one slightly missed the mark for me. My disappointment began with the shootout, and was cemented when the letter arrived from Agatha. But let's start from the beginning.
The fact that the poorly-witnessed kiss initiates the misunderstanding in the book reminded me of Atonement. The adventure, the protagonist, and of course the language reminded me of True Grit. I wasn't sure how comfortable I was with these similarities at first: where is the line between homage and outright borrowing of individual stylistic, thematic, and plot-point choices? If I think about it long enough, though, I'll probably come to the conclusion that nothing is truly original, so the artful blending of past material into something new is in itself "originality." I think also you could argue that One Came Home is to True Grit as Keeping the Castle is to Pride and Prejudice. That is, it provides a wily, age-appropriate stepping-stone to reading those classics later in life. But I'm still fascinated by the topic of when homage turns to borrowing, and someday I'd like to think about that in depth.
The more I ruminate, the more I feel disappointed by the ending. Timberlake began to lose me with the shootout--a moment that completely and unfortunately removed me from the story. Sometimes I think authors are overly influenced by movies: shooting a gun has devolved into a "stunt" with which the author can make a point or manipulate the action, rather than a messy, idiosyncratic process that has unexpected outcomes. There's a reason real-live cops are supposed to shoot to kill when confronted with another gun. But I digress. At least in OCH (unlike in, say, Code Name Verity, another book with an impossible shooting scene), Timberlake worked hard to make us believe that one of Georgie's defining characteristics is her ability to shoot (whereas the amount of training Maddie had in CNV was negligible relative to her formidable skill on the bridge). But even so, Georgie's marksmanship became ridiculous in that meadow scene, a movie trope, right down to shooting a hat off. These are grown, criminal men shooting at her and drawing guns, and she doesn't shoot them, she does some Annie Oakely nonsense to scare them away?
But that was only the beginning of losing me. I would have been happy with two endings: 1. Agatha is not proven to be alive or dead (just as Timberlake leaves it after the conversation with the station master) in which case the book is about Georgie learning from the experience, coping with the sort of uncertainty that happens in the adult world ("Living with uncertainty is like having a rock in your shoe."); or 2. it's more "fiction" than real-world, and Agatha turns out to be alive, but Georgie is the one to discover her or solve the mystery, especially given the long, arduous journey she completed on her sister's behalf, and that we slogged through, too. Georgie (and others) told us several times in her narration that Agatha wouldn't have not written, and yet that's the punchline of the book: Agatha has simply not written. And speaking of that moment, when Agatha's letter arrives, Georgie's (and her mother's) reaction to it is just...wrong. Georgie has been impulsive throughout the book, but consistent in desperately wanting Agatha back. It would have been more believable to me if she and her mother had had, yes a moment of confusion at first, but then a breakdown of relief and joy. I was perplexed that Georgie's first reaction was a sort of tepid anger, and the final realization that Agatha is alive merits only a "group huuuug."
Moving along with the ways the ending unraveled for me, Mr. Garrow's reaction to Darlene's death was unbelievable, too--that he wouldn't properly bury the girl he "doted" on? Are we truly to believe that his fear of his wife made him concoct this whole story and leave the body of a beloved daughter unceremoniously at the side of the road for animals to dismember? (I would also like clarification, and maybe someone out there can help me: when Georgie's mom points out that there were too many coincidences in how the body was found, Mrs. Garrow says, "Ha! You think my Blair is that clever?" Tell me, what is Georgie's mom implying? That Garrow deliberately arranged Darlene's death to look like it was Agatha? I am clueless about what Timberlake was trying to say here. That section could have used fleshing out, maybe.)
More complaints about the ending: Georgie's learning not to kill anything living didn't feel in keeping either with her earlier character or with the time period. Game was a reasonable addition to everyone's groceries in rural WI towns in 1871, and she was good with a gun, not to mention a practical person. It was a clumsy, modern way to show character growth. Similarly, I found myself rolling my eyes that she felt so bad about "accidentally" shooting Roy's thumb (first of all, I don't think any gun owner would shoot in the direction of a person and consider a resulting injury to be an accident, knowing what the stakes are when a gun is pointed at someone)--and she seems to be more concerned with explaining to Mr. Olmstead that injuring Roy, the bad guy, was a mistake than in identifying the real reason the posse should hunt the men: they were counterfeiters and they nearly killed Billy!
Finally, it seems in general that Timberlake wasn't clear on what the themes of the book were. I feel like she was still fishing for the core of her message by the end (which explains tossing in the great Chicago fire). I would have vastly preferred that Agatha never be found, so that one of the big themes was about uncertainty. When Georgie decides not to kill anything anymore, I could almost hear Timberlake saying to herself, "Wait, what did G learn in this book? I'd better add something that the adventure changed inside of her."
Some questions I had:
1. Why didn't anyone ask why Agatha would be dressed in her ball gown when she was killed? Some lip service to that mystery among the family might have been nice.
2. Would a 13 year-old have been at the legal identification of the dismembered corpse of her sister? Perhaps she would, given the time period, and the fact that Georgie had finished her schooling at age 13 and was already working in the store. But knowing her mother, and knowing how close the sisters were, I wondered whether the mother would spare her the experience. Of course, the story is predicated on it so it had to stay, but I stumbled while reading.
3. When, in response to Georgie's direct question, Billy begins to recount the demise of his relationship with Agatha and what happened with the kiss (something Georgie was terribly interested in), would Georgie have let her mind wander to Olmstead's library and the Audubon books rather than listen with rapt attention? (In general I had a problem with the stylistic, structural choice in the book, especially at the beginning, where the backstory we need is told through Georgie's reminiscences, often repetitively, but at such odd times that they slow the forward momentum of the main action.) I got the feeling there that Timberlake was revising, and trying to find a place to stick that memory of the library encounter, and chose that spot, but it was unbelievable to me that Georgie would space out on such an important conversation.
4. Is it in Georgie's character to rat her sister out for kissing Billy? I don't think so.