Study Guide

One Came Home Analysis

  • Tone

    Direct, Precocious, Scout Finch

    If you've never met Scout Finch, narrator of Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, get thee to Shmoop's character analysis pronto because Georgie Burkhardt is Scout's direct literary descendent. Both are super-smart tomboys who are not so impressed with the way the world around them works and are struggling to understand it. Also, neither of them is shy about expressing her dissatisfaction with the way things are nor with how adults handle things. Georgie, for example, resents the fact that all the adults in her life are trying to make her accept her sister's death:

    If Ma had only wanted an apology for causing a scene at the funeral, I might have yielded. But she wanted me to voice my sorrow. She wanted me to say my sister was dead, deceased, perished, passed on. I would do no such thing. (4.3)

    Georgie has an advanced vocabulary—we get the feeling she would be a school spelling bee champion in another time—so she often expresses things in a way that is, at the least, uncommon for a thirteen-year-old girl. We might say it's precocious—or prematurely mature. How's that for an oxymoron? For an example of this, check out the final paragraph:

    I say let all the earth be alive and overwhelmingly so. Let the sky be pressed to bursting with wings, beaks, pumping hearts, and driving muscles. Let it be noisy. Let it make a mess. Then let me find my allotted space. Let me feel how I bump up against every other living thing on this earth. Let me learn to spin. (24.69)

    Profound, right? In many ways, Georgie sounds like a much older character here, which is where the whole precocious tone comes in.

  • Genre

    Adventure; Historical Fiction; Mystery; Western

    Westerns are set in the American West (or in this case, Midwest), usually sometime in the late 1800s, and historical fiction is set sometime in, uh, history. What we're saying is that a book set in Wisconsin in 1871 qualifies for both of these genres. We've also got mystery up in the mix, what with that whole sister-who-may-or-may-not-be-dead situation, and Georgie goes on a road trip fraught with peril in order to find out what really happened, so we can go ahead and add in adventure for good measure.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    One Came Home is what Georgie's Ma cries when she sees Georgie at Grandfather Bolte's funeral: "One came home! One came home! Georgie, you came home!" (20.20). Georgie's return is pretty significant for Ma because the other two members of her family who left (Agatha and Georgie's Pa) didn't come home. So it's a Big Deal that Georgie does.

    It's also interesting that the book is about Georgie's journey, but the title emphasizes her return. Titles tell us to pay attention, and this one tells us something key about Georgie: She's going to come home. And for good, too, since she's going to stay and run the store. She loves Placid and wants to stay there.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The end of One Came Home is a few paragraphs of Georgie's reflections on the Meaning of Life and what she has learned. In them, Georgie reflects on all the death she's seen—Darlene, the fire victims, pigeons—and she decides she will no longer be a hunter because all life is sacred to her now. She wants to value life the way Agatha values it, and really, that's the key: She wants to be more like Agatha and she wants to figure out where she belongs in this great web of all life on the planet. We're guessing figuring that out will be Georgie's next adventure.

  • Setting

    Placid, Wisconsin to Dog Hollow, Wisconsin and Back, 1871

    We don't usually think of Wisconsin when we think of Westerns, but here we have two little western-style towns on our hands with this book, complete with sheriff. Well, Placid is big enough to have a sheriff, anyway—Dog Hollow isn't quite that fancy. In either place, though, we feel like we could use a set from a John Wayne movie as the backdrop.

    Georgie's journey takes her from Placid to Dog Hollow, past Dog Hollow, and back to Placid. Along the way, she encounters good old western stock characters like doctors, sheriffs, general store owners, and cowboys. And of course, gun-slinging criminals.

    The year is really important here, too, because 1871 is the year of the massive pigeon nestings, the great drought, and the really bad fires along the shore of Lake Michigan, all of which play a major role in Georgie's story, and all of which really happened.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    While some of the story is told in flashback, on the whole One Came Home is a straightforward read. We have a reliable narrator who always tells the truth as she sees it and is open about exactly what's going on at all times. She even admits it when she's been a tattletale, and she never makes us guess about her motivations. Georgie Burkhardt is as clear as glass and a lot clearer than the water of the Wisconsin River, which makes this book pretty easy to get through.

  • Writing Style

    Linear with Flashbacks, Colloquial

    Let's talk first about the overall structure of the story. Georgie takes us from Agatha's funeral on June 7 through the end of October in 1871. However, she also has to tell us how a body everyone else believes to be Agatha's ends up in that coffin, and in order to do that, she flashes back to the winter and spring of 1871. But the flashbacks generally come in linear order, so we're not jumping around all over the place like Long Ears when he sees a cougar.

    In terms of sentence-by-sentence writing style, we would say that Georgie is not a fancy talker. She peppers her speech with euphemistic swear words like "Dadgum mule" (8.1), and overall, seems almost like she's trying to sound less polished than she really is, which is perhaps part of her tomboy character. Her description of Mr. Olmstead's first courting of Agatha supports that idea. She says:

    It was the kind of thing you might read in Godey's Lady's Book: "I wondered if you'd go for a stroll with me, Miss Burkhardt." "It would be my pleasure."

    It was like that. I do not mind telling you that I did not care for hearing that sort of language in my own home. I nearly laughed out loud when Grandfather Bolte called the night "fine." It certainly was not! April rain had mucked up the road, and there was enough bite in the air to make your nose run. But out went Agatha and Mr. Olmstead into that "fine" evening. (7.32-33)

    Nope, Georgie does not care for the pleasantries. She likes her language like her ammunition: shot straight out of the barrel.

  • Pigeons

    There's a lot of pigeon imagery in One Came Home, and if a pigeon flies, nests, or poops anywhere within five miles of Placid, Georgie's going to tell us about it. Partly, this is because the pigeon nesting and Agatha's and Georgie's varying interests in pigeons form the backbone of the book and tells us a lot about their differences as sisters. Agatha wants to study the pigeons, to learn about nature, but Georgie focuses on her prowess as a hunter: she wants to dominate and control nature—much like she wants to control Agatha's life.

    Nowhere are the two sisters more contrasted than in their reactions to the pigeons that invade Placid in March. While Agatha literally embraces the cloud of pigeons, running out into the street to stand under them, Georgie, unarmed against massive numbers of birds, is afraid. Even though she wants to stand with Agatha in her encounter with the pigeons, she's just too scared:

    As if she heard my thoughts, Agatha stopped and pointed at me. "Come," she mouthed. Her free hand gestured me closer. She nodded encouragingly.

    I wanted to. I did. I tried to pull my fingers from that railing, to instruct my feet to lift and step. But those images of bells and streams dissolved, and all I saw was a wind stirred by the evil winged creatures from Pandora's Box. I stayed. (2.22-23)

    Georgie fears what Agatha delights in, and at the same time, she wants to be more like Agatha. In the above scene, she calls Agatha "sister, friend, guide to life, and the eighth wonder of my world" (2.21). We're thinking it's safe to say she admired her.

    However, Georgie knows she's not like Agatha: She likes hunting and keeping accounts and wants to stay in Placid and inherit the general store. By the end of the novel, though, Georgie has learned to value life above all, as Agatha does, even though they still have different inclinations and goals. She says:

    I do not even think an animal as abundant as the wild pigeon should be minus one. I say let all the earth be alive and overwhelmingly so. Let the sky be pumped to bursting with wings, beaks, pumping hearts, and driving muscles. Let it be noisy. Let it make a mess. Then let me find my allotted space. Let me feel how I bump up against every other living thing on this earth. Let me learn to spin. (24.69)

    Georgie's not quite there yet—she's still a bit cautious and afraid of making connections—but she has the desire to learn what Agatha gets from her close connection to the natural world. And as for valuing life, she goes from wanting to shoot pigeons to thinking they should be left alone and celebrated… just the way her sister does.

  • Agatha's Story

    Ten days before her disappearance, Agatha tells Georgie a story from the Seneca about a wise old man who dreams of a white pigeon. He tries to follow it, but can only do so feather by feather. Georgie says:

    "This is a story about you," I crowed. Agatha never could tell a story that wasn't somehow about herself. (3.27)

    Because Agatha chooses to tell Georgie this story just before she leaves, we think Georgie's right. Agatha is telling Georgie that she has to make her own way, step by step, but she does it through a story instead of saying, "I'm going to run away with some pigeoners. Don't try to stop me, okay?" Importantly, though, this means Agatha doesn't just up and leave—she offers her younger sister an explanation for her actions, even if Georgie doesn't understand this at the time.

    After they receive Agatha's letter months later, Georgie says, "Feather by feather, she had made her way"(23.37). The realization that Agatha has actually accomplished her goals in the same manner the story describes makes Georgie realize that she, too, can change and grow. In fact, you might say Georgie's already started doing just that.

  • Feathers

    Was there any doubt that feathers were going to play a major role in this story? We've got birds, we've got a story about an old man who talks to birds… yeah, feathers are going to be a symbol. Mainly, they are a symbol for Agatha and the way she floats on the wind, the way no one can tie her down—not Billy, not Grandfather Bolte, not her broken engagement with Mr. Olmstead. As Georgie says:

    Feathers claw their way back into the sky, whereas leaves, after flying once, are content to rest on the earth. Agatha? She was a feather. She pushed higher, farther always. (3.2)

    Do you notice the words claw and pushed? Feathers may be light and airy, but make no mistake about whether Agatha's tough. She refuses to give up on her dreams, reaching high time and again until she finally catches a breeze that carries her to where she wants to go.

    Later, Georgie compares the moment she finds out Agatha is alive to a feather:

    Pause a moment. Feel the air surround that moment. Push against it, and find that it truly exists. Blow on it, and see how the tiny barbs snag the wind and lift. Watch it fly. (24.36)

    While it might seem a bit clichéd to say that Georgie's heart is light as a feather when she discovers Agatha is alive, it's also quite true. So there.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Usually, we can identify a first-person central narrator because she's using I, which is exactly what Georgie does. There's absolutely zero question that this is Georgie's story, and Georgie tells us what's happening to her both as it's happening and in flashbacks. The whole thing is one hundred percent from Georgie's point of view, complete with her own interpretations and prejudices. Georgie is both the main character and the narrator, which adds up to her being the central narrator.

    • Plot Analysis


      Someday Forensic Science Will Solve This Problem

      How do you identify a body in 1871 when it's in pieces, there's no face, and it's been exposed to the elements for a week? Very carefully, using scraps of clothing and hair as absolute proof. Georgie's sister disappears, and a body turns up wearing her dress. Georgie doesn't believe it's Agatha, but everyone else does, and just like that, we've got ourselves a conflict in need of a resolution.

      Rising Action

      Because Tracking Down Whoever Killed Your Sister Seems Totally Safe

      Georgie and Billy, Agatha's ex-boyfriend, set off together for Dog Hollow, the last place Agatha was seen. Georgie's out to prove Agatha is alive, and Billy's along for reasons of his own. Following a lead, the two of them end up at the Garrow farm, where they discover that another young woman matching Agatha's description, Darlene Garrow, is also missing. They also discover that Mr. Garrow is a counterfeiter, and though they run faster than a pigeon flies once they do, Mr. Garrow and another member of his gang come after them.


      Shootout at High Noon

      Mr. Garrow and Bowler Hat catch up with them, and Georgie, completely convinced now that they killed her sister, gets into a shootout with the men as they beat Billy nearly to death. This is the big exciting action scene. But wait, there's more. After they escape, the dying Billy has a confession: He used Georgie to break Agatha and Mr. Olmstead up. So now we've got a big action scene and a revelation that affects Georgie's emotional journey toward accepting her sister's death.

      Falling Action

      Time for More Funerals

      Mr. Olmstead finds Georgie and Billy on the road and takes them back to Dog Hollow, where he finds Billy a doctor and tells Georgie that Grandfather Bolte has died. Back in Placid, Georgie's Ma is super glad to see her, since she's been afraid of losing Georgie, too. The pace of the story slows now, as Georgie finds her way back into everyday life in Placid, having accepted her sister's death.


      Everything You Think You Know is Wrong

      Guess what? Agatha's not dead after all. When the Garrow Gang is captured, Georgie gets her fifteen minutes of fame for her little shootout with them, allowing Agatha to find out what's been going on. They get a letter from Agatha, whose overall tone is, "What the heck?" This resolves what happened to Agatha, but, um… whose body is in her grave?

      Later that summer, Mrs. Garrow arrives to tell them that the body belongs to her daughter, Darlene. Darlene died in an accident, and her father dumped the body to avoid telling his wife about it. So now we know where everyone is and who everyone is. Georgie has decided not to hunt anymore but to value life as Agatha does, completing her emotional journey toward maturity.