Seeing the reverend on the other side of that six-foot hole reminded me that I was "sister of the the deceased"—a fancy title for someone who stands quietly, holds her tongue, and maintains a mournful attitude. (1.3)
We can't think of a description less fitting for Georgie than the one given here. How does Georgie see her role as the "sister of the deceased"? How is it the same as or different from the role others expect her to play?
There was a long pause, then Agatha sighed and turned to face me. She grabbed my hand. "Listen to me, Georgie. I love you. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, I always love you."
I blinked, confused. "I know. I love you too." (3.43-44)
If we know our foreshadowing, we know a conversation like this means something's about to change, and usually not for the better, at least not for the person on the receiving end. Agatha's about to skip town, for sure—we could've told Georgie that.
Ma gave me jobs like retrieving the canned delicacies from the cellar: fancy tins of tangerines, olives, smoked herring, Japanese green tea, lobster, and the like. I was to remove the dented ones (setting them aside for Ma to inspect) and polish up the rest. I was to do this on the back stoop—a place she wasn't likely to be.
Fine, I thought. I can do without you too. (5.3-4)
Georgie and her mother are getting on each other's nerves in a big way, largely because neither of them agrees with how the other is responding to Agatha's death. What is it about grief that damages relationships among surviving family members who otherwise love each other?
How she persisted in her kindness when I could not stand the sight of her I do not know. I felt a flash of shame, not only because of my behavior over the past few days, but because beginning tomorrow morning she would not find me. (5.10)
Uh-oh… Sounds like Georgie's about to pull an Agatha and skip town. You'd think she'd understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a disappearance like this. Does she ever consider the effect her leaving might have on a mother who just lost one daughter?
He put his hand on my head. "Figures it was you that got this bird."
Ma glanced between the two of us. "You spoil that child," she said to Grandfather Bolte. (6.80-81)
Georgie and Grandfather Bolte have a very close relationship and are very much alike, as both Ma and Agatha point out. Sometimes such similarities drive family members apart, but in this case, it seems to bring them together.
I looked at him. "Did Ma know about this?"
Billy's chin lifted defensively. "Your grandfather was going to tell her."
"I cannot believe it."
Billy held up his hands. "Did you think no one would notice our absence? Your grandfather would follow you in two snaps after what happened to Agatha. I was ready to tell you if you asked." (11.108-111)
We thought the whole time that it was a little odd for Billy just to take off with Georgie without telling her grieving family. How do you feel about Billy's decision to trick Georgie like this? How does it compare to his later confession that he kissed Agatha in the hope of breaking up her thing with Mr. Olmstead? Either way, he was sent by Grandfather Bolte, which is cool.
"Wait here," said Billy. He clucked his tongue at Storm.
"If you go, I go. If anything, you should wait here. This is my journey. She was my sister," I said. (14.10-11)
We don't blame Georgie for getting a little huffy, especially after Billy's already betrayed her once by telling her family where she is. Plus, whether right or not, it makes sense that she feels like this is her time to call the shots—it's Georgie's journey, Billy's just living in it.
Mr. Olmstead's hand reached out and squeezed mine. "I came because your ma asked me to find you. Your grandfather died two days ago."
"Grandfather Bolte?" I said.
But what other grandfather did I have? (19.55-57)
To be honest, we did not see this one coming. Georgie starts her journey thinking she's lost one family member but ends it by losing another. At this point, she still doesn't know Agatha is alive, so it appears she's lost two family members in quick succession. It's a major bummer.
A relative? I knew Ma had relations out in upstate New York. She wrote to them faithfully, once a week. But I never thought I'd see one of those upstaters in the flesh. From what I understood, they considered Wisconsin a wilderness devoid of law, manners, and all proper speech. I would have stared further (and eventually issued a greeting), but Ma grabbed hold of me and kissed me again. (20.25)
With the arrival of Aunt Cleo, Georgie's family circle widens to include those she's never met before. Aunt Cleo quickly fits in with Georgie and Ma, too. Georgie, who is usually a bit prickly about outsiders getting into her family life, is so quick to accept her aunt—perhaps because she's just kind of lost her own sister.
I wanted my sister. I loved my sister.
I did it then—I forgave her… (23.31-32)
Whew. While it seems like Agatha really has no idea what a ruckus she's caused, it also seems like she could have written sooner. Georgie forgives her immediately, but we're not so sure we wouldn't write a letter back that includes a few choice words.
I do not want to talk about what I saw. But if you're to understand the rest, here's what you need to know: There wasn't a lot of body left (the sheriff said that it'd been exposed to animals). There wasn't a face. There wasn't a left or right hand. The body was wrapped in fabric from Agatha's blue-green ball gown. There was a clump of auburn hair. I started to shake. I still have nightmares (that body was in an advanced state of decomposition). (1.10)
We start off with a body that has been torn up in a lot of ways: shot in the face, exposed to the elements, scavenged by animals. We have violence from humans and nature here, which will go on to be a theme throughout the book, so keep your eyes peeled.
She touched the Springfield. "You always end up killing something. I don't know how you can be so sure about putting creatures to death." (6.11)
Georgie has never had a close encounter with human death until Sheriff McCabe brings that body in. However, she's happy to shoot animals for no reason other than to practice her skill with the Springfield, so she deals out violence all the time. Does the book make a statement about the relative morality of killing animals for sport? Does it have this effect on you as a reader?
My feet slipped and gave way. I rolled ten feet, ripping my sleeve, bruising every part of my body, and banging my cheek hard. I felt my cheek swell—heat rising in it. (No wonder my face later looked like a topographic map.) (12.26)
In her fit of grief over Agatha's death, Georgie manages to bang herself up something fierce. Now she looks as pained as she feels, having experienced a kind of emotional violence through being forced to confront the idea of losing her sister.
After four or five feet of river had ambled by, Billy reached out and touched my cheekbone. "None of my brothers ever managed one that good. Does it hurt?"
"Now that you mention it," I said. I had noticed the heat gathering around my cheekbone. My left eye had difficulty opening. (13.10-11)
Wow, of course it hurts, Billy, and it's probably infected. Talk about silly questions. How do these injuries—and the resulting, if temporary, change in Georgie's appearance—change her character for the rest of the novel?
"Now, I know my Darlene has plenty of followers, but it does beat all when someone comes in here and asks after my daughter accompanied by a young girl so obviously struck in the face."
"I fell," I said quickly. (14.40)
This is an interesting switch on the stereotype of domestic violence victims who say they fell when they were in fact beaten. Georgie is telling the truth, but no one believes her. This is particularly interesting considered along with Mrs. Garrow's presumption that Georgie and Bill are a couple—for the Garrows, violence and love may be closely related.
I did not care for that murderous term (though it fit the act). The war with the South had tainted all sharpshooters as those too yellow-bellied to fight man-to-man. But this wasn't a man-to-man fight; this was man-to-girl, and even with the advantage of the repeating rifle, I'd never shot at something that shot back. (17.33)
This is Georgie's first high-stakes violent encounter. Up until now, she's been shooting at small animals and falling on rocks. This time, she really might die. Still, she doesn't have many options in this situation.
I watched as a man I'd never seen, a thin man topped with a bowler hat, jerked Billy so he sat closer to the pine, pulled his arms around the tree trunk, and lashed his wrists together. Then Bowler Hat bound up Billy's legs. The man's bony shoulder blades worked back and forth. When the man finished, Billy looked trussed up like a turkey ready for roasting. Billy hurt too. I couldn't see any blood—at least not at this distance—but I saw him wince with every breath. (17.42)
Here, we see the results of what Bowler Hat and Mr. Garrow have already done to Billy, so we know they mean business. If Georgie doesn't fight back, they well might kill her and Billy. What choices does Georgie have about how she engages in violence at this point?
I'd known as I took aim that I'd finish the Springfield. I did. The Springfield—my Springfield—flew from Bowler Hat's hands, the butt end splintering. Sparks scattered as parts of it landed in the fire and began to burn.
Bowler Hat grabbed at his right hand and hit the ground on his knees, genuflecting up and down, his hands clenched as if in prayer—profane prayer, because he swore up and down the alphabet. "My thumb! My thumb's gone!" (17.106-107)
Georgie decides to shoot her own gun—now wielded by Bowler Hat—instead of killing the man. She does, however, get his thumb. Not that this is really funny, but if there's any comic relief in this scene, it's Bowler Hat's freak out about his thumb. We have to say, as he was seriously going to murder two people, he's getting off easy by losing only a thumb.
She kept up a near constant monologue as she worked over my body with a brush: "My land, these bruises! There's society and savagery, and you sure crossed that line. We've got to bring you back." (19.12)
Mrs. Tartt is referring mainly to Georgie's appearance here, but can we read more into it? Has Georgie crossed a line between society and savagery? Does her encounter with the counterfeiters, and her journey as a whole, have any lasting effect on her ability to fit in with society?
What was Mr. Olmstead talking about? How did he know about the counterfeiters? And what did he mean by "the men that did this to you"? Then part of it dawned on me: "Are you talking about my face?"
"Someone hit you."
I sighed. "Everyone seems to deduce that I got hit, but I fell. I fell off a big pile of rocks, landed on my cheek, and earned this bruise fair and square. Mr. Garrow and his men are innocent of hurting me. I hurt them. The man traveling with Mr. Garrow? Well, I accidentally shot off his thumb." I realized how that sounded, and added: "In defense! He was going to hurt Billy."
Mr. Olmstead's eyes went wide. "You shot off his thumb?" (19.35-38)
Poor Georgie—she keeps trying to tell people she fell, but everyone assumes she took a good smack across the face. In this passage, she fairly well sums up the various kinds of violence she's dealt with on her quest: taking it and dealing it out.
Agatha smiled. She patted the bed. I knew what that meant, even though she hadn't done it since I was eight or so. I jumped into the center and arranged myself cross-legged. She climbed up and kneeled behind me. She undid my braids. Then she rested one hand on the crown of my head and used the other to drag a brush through my hair. Tingling ran through my body. I closed my eyes. It was going to be all right now. She'd forgiven me. I knew it. (3.23)
It may seem like Georgie is pretty naïve to think that Agatha is going to get over a breach of trust like this so quickly, but then again, these two are sister. Ovaries before brovaries, yo.
"But let me describe my particular state: I saw the two of you kiss. I told Mr. Olmstead. Mr. Olmstead threw over Agatha. Then Agatha ran off. There's a direct correlation between my telling and Agatha's leaving. If my sister is dead, I bear responsibility. If you think I'm going to accept a piecemeal body as evidence of my sister's death, you do not know me at all. Now, I've got money for a horse." (4.52)
To Georgie's credit, she certainly makes the connections in her explanation to Billy and seems to accept a lot of responsibility. We're wondering why Billy doesn't cave a little faster here, especially considering the part he played in all this.
The worst part (and the part I never wanted to admit) was that a moment before I spoke to Mr. Olmstead, I knew I shouldn't say a word. But up until that moment, I possessed absolute certainty of the rightness of my cause. I would have said, with confidence, that my sister was seeing Mr. Olmstead for his library. (Beware of such convictions, for they are fraught with peril.) (10.49)
Well, Georgie, why didn't you make up some excuse about why you came to visit? You could've said you wanted to check out all his taxidermy and books—that would have sounded totally normal.
Anyway, what did it matter what the kiss meant? If I hadn't told Mr. Olmstead, my sister would still be in Placid, her funeral would not have been held, and I would not be out here searching for her. (10.79)
Yep. Here's an interesting thought: If Georgie hadn't told Mr. Olmstead, would Darlene Garrow still have ended up dead? Does Georgie bear any responsibility for Darlene's death? Yikes.
I heard a half-strangled sound and then Billy began to sob.
I fidgeted for a moment. People don't come to me for comfort and consolation. I don't know why. They don't, is all. But it had led me to conclude that I had no talent for it. Right then, though? I was it. Buck up, I said to myself. I went over, sat down next to him, and laid my hand on his shoulder (like I'd seen others do).
"I can't get her back," he said into his knees. (15.34-36)
Billy confuses us, just as he confuses Georgie. Does he love Agatha? Does he love Polly? He doesn't seem to know his own mind most of the time. Sigh. Love is hard sometimes.
But this time it would be the blood of a man, and not a pigeon.
He deserved it—he killed Agatha, I thought.
My index finger wrapped around the trigger.
How can you be so sure? It was Agatha's voice singing in my head as clear as any spring cardinal's. (17.87-90)
Here, Georgie is passing blame for Agatha's death on to the Garrow Gang, even though she doesn't know for sure that they did it. She's also saying they deserve to pay some pretty serious consequences if they did. This issue of whether anyone gets to decide if someone else lives or dies dominates the rest of the book.
"You manipulated me?" I said.
He did not answer.
"Used me? Answer me, Billy. If it's the last thing you do, you tell me."
Billy opened his mouth. "Yes..."
I stood up and looked down at him prone on the ground, so weak—nearly dead, as far as I could tell.
"So, so sorry… why I came here. To make up."
I stared at him for what seemed like a long time. Finally, I said: "You did not show love to my sister. You never cared for me. You talk to your maker about it." And I walked off. (18.49-55)
Georgie lays down some serious blame here. To be fair, Billy really does deserve it for pulling that little trick with the kiss. He could have told Georgie this long ago at home in Placid, so we're not sure we believe he came on this wild goose chase just to make it up to her. Perhaps he's hoping to rescue Agatha and win her favor this way.
I looked into those blue eyes. "I shouldn't have told you."
"No. I should have listened to Agatha when she explained. I was jealous of her relationship with Billy. If I'm honest." (19.47-48)
Mr. Olmstead is such a good guy, the best of the bunch. Unlike everyone else, he's able to admit he was wrong, quite simply.
Awkwardness abounded. You can read my face like a book, and Billy did. "I'm not here to cause grief. I've done enough. I know it." (21.27)
We have to admit, we wanted more out of a Billy/Georgie reunion scene. They spend the whole book together, and then he says "sorry," and they never see each other again. What? We wanted to see them have it out and see Georgie satisfied with the end.
"Heedless girl," said Aunt Cleo.
"She doesn't know the half of it," said Ma.
I stood slack-jawed. Then I rammed my knee hard into the counter. "I hate her. She deceived us," I said. (23.23-25)
Hmm. We get where Georgie is coming from, but we also get where Agatha is coming from. What was your reaction to the news that Agatha is just fine?
On Friday, Grandfather Bolte handed me the newly cleaned Springfield. "That's a good rifle. You, Georgie, have got the touch for it. You're as good a shot as I've ever seen." (5.15)
Aw, this makes us sniffle a little. Grandfather Bolte not only recognizes Georgie, but he gives her a vote of confidence in her skills.
Most people shoot pigeons with a shotgun—No. 8 pellets. A single cartridge of pigeon shot is filled with hundreds of tiny balls. Those pellets spray outward, so a single shot can garner several birds. But I wasn't after a pigeon pie; I wanted to show skill at shooting. Grandfather Bolte and I were keeping track of what I shot with the ammunition I used, and to shoot a bird with a single bullet is difficult—even a bird as large as the big male in front of me. I estimated that bird at a full seventeen inches head to tail. He'll do fine, I thought. (6.43)
Now we know what to do if we ever want pigeon pie: Find Georgie to get us some pigeons. What is the point of Georgie's killing this bird? Do we ever find out what happens to it? How does her killing solely for sport affect how you view Georgie's character?
To test my cleaning job, I loaded a cartridge into the Springfield and aimed at a twig approximately one hundred yards away. I fired. The twig shattered.
"Nice shot," said Billy.
"I never miss," I said. (10.93-95)
Does Georgie ever miss? She talks a big game, that's for sure, and we see her make every shot she needs to. Then again, though, she's the one telling us the story…
For better or worse, one skill I've acquired by growing up in a store is the ability to sell. I am not proud of what I did that night, but at the time I thought I needed to convince Billy that I wanted to go home, and I sold him on it: (15.44)
I do believe Grandfather Bolte would have been proud of my deduction. It takes one business owner to understand another (legal or not). (16.30)
Georgie is always thinking about what Grandfather Bolte would think, which is interesting because we're pretty sure he would have told her not to tattle on Agatha to Mr. Olmstead.
While I crawled, I appraised my shooting skills. As I'd proved with the cougar, I was no quick draw. My best chance was to hide myself and wait for an opportunity to shoot. This tactic is known as hunting when animals are the target, but it has an altogether different name when man is the object—sharpshooting. (17.32)
How does the book distinguish between the consequences of shooting an animal and those of shooting a person? Does it make a distinction? Is it any "better" to shoot an animal?
Given the way I've previously described shooting, you may think magic happened here: that the focus came on strong, the world dropping away, and that I knew exactly what to do. But nothing could be further from the truth. (17.61)
Well, yes, we might think that, Georgie, given that you've bragged the whole time about what a great shot you are. You can't really blame us.
Through sawing breath, Billy's voice came. He spoke loudly: "Leave her. She's got a rifle—a repeater. She can shoot. She's the best shot in our town." (17.82)
Is she? Sorry, but there's got to be someone better than a thirteen-year-old, simply based on practice time alone. Even if it's a bit of an exaggeration, though, Georgie does seem to be in command of her shot.
Billy said: "She never misses."
Shut up, Billy! Shut up, I thought. (17.99-100)
Billy really is laying it on a bit thick here. Georgie does miss sometimes, after all, surely—she's only human.
"She's got a knack," said Aunt Cleo to Ma repeatedly (and in my hearing). Another time Aunt Cleo said that sales ran in the family, and I'd inherited the tendency. I understood what she meant. I felt almost clairvoyant. Sometimes I knew what people wanted or needed before they knew themselves. I certainly liked devising schemes to sell this or that item: I formulated plans. I tweaked wordings on signs and made sure everything looked like a picture postcard from the plate glass window. And despite the circumstances, I felt a kind of congruity with the world and my place in it when the store thrummed like a beehive with Aunt Cleo, Ma, and me each doing our part. (22.3)
How does this passage compare to the passages where Georgie talks about shooting? It seems like Georgie has found her place in the store and doesn't need to shoot to have an identity anymore. We are going to point out, though, that the shattered Springfield was probably easier to give up than a nice new gun would have been.
She spoke rapidly. Agatha told me she'd asked for tuition money for the University of Wisconsin at Madison as her Christmas present. She explained how she had offered to spend her savings, which she said was enough for the first year's tuition. But still, Grandfather Bolte had turned her down flat, saying the only thing she'd get at the university was a husband, and that could be found in Placid, Wisconsin, for free. (3.8)
What do you think of Grandfather Bolte's position? Why does he feel it wouldn't be worth it for Agatha to go to the University of Wisconsin? Does Agatha want a husband or does she want to go to college? Or does she want both?
No, I was not in favor of Agatha's going to university, because it meant Agatha would leave Placid and me. Happily, Agatha did not speak of going again. I thought her craving for education was cured. (3.11)
Okay, that's straight-up selfish, Georgie—Georgie does tend to get stubbornly stuck on her own ideas. In her defense, she's only thirteen. Still, though, she's going to have to learn to let Agatha be if she wants to stay close to her sister long-term.
As I watched Agatha spin around the ballroom, I heard my neighbors bet that by the end of January, Agatha Burkhardt would be engaged to marry Billy McCabe. I hated that idea. Marrying Billy was worse than attending the University of Wisconsin because Billy planned to homestead in Minnesota. Minnesota was so far away Agatha might never come home again. (3.14)
Essentially, Agatha can't do anything to make Georgie happy other than stay in Placid forever and run the store with her. Sorry, Georgie, but that doesn't sound that great to us, either. We think Georgie needs to get a dream that doesn't involve Agatha, one that can be all her own.
I turned around and blurted what I'd been thinking: "When we own the store, you can leave anytime. You can do your studying. You'll have to check with me to make sure I've got help, but after that you can leave. I won't stop you." (3.33)
Wow, that's, um, really thoughtful of Georgie. The thing is, she actually thinks this is a really unselfish position. Part of Georgie's journey is to mature enough to realize that she doesn't—and can't and shouldn't—control all the actions of others.
Agatha squeezed my hand and began to roll over. But before she turned away from me, I started in: "It won't be so bad...A living is as good an inheritance as anyone's got. I'd make a fine partner." (3.45)
Oh, Georgie—of course you would. That's not the point. The point is that you have to let people live their own lives—even your sister. And you also need to hush and let her go to sleep.
I turned on her. "You can't see him. You asked me to run the store with you, remember? We made a pact."
Agatha laughed. "We did not make a pact."
"You did! You asked me to run the store with you."
Agatha frowned. "Did I?"
I huffed. "In February? The day I shot the pigeon? You said, 'We've always got the store.' You said you and I would run it. You did." (7.37-41)
We do feel bad for Georgie here. She is fighting change so hard she can't think about anything else. Agatha is never going to run that store with her, but she just can't accept that Agatha's dreams are different from hers.
"I don't remember any rule that says someone is yours. Agatha didn't even say she'd marry you. She didn't have to marry you. On that February day, Agatha asked me to run the store with her. She wouldn't have married you—no matter the circumstances."
Billy sniggered. "That was your plan, huh?" (10.83-84)
Georgie might want to try practicing what she preaches since Agatha isn't hers any more than she's Billy's, but Georgie is operating under the same sense of possessiveness Billy is. She just can't see it. We don't really blame Billy for laughing—he knows Agatha wasn't going to give up her dreams for Georgie any more than for him.
So now I knew: Billy was not out here to meet Agatha. Money was his motive. It made too much sense for me to ignore. Weren't he and Polly planning to move to Minnesota? Homesteading is nothing if not expensive. That was why Billy was traveling with me, and why Polly Barfod would not object. (11.133)
As we move through the novel, we move out of the realm of dreams and into that of plans. Billy has a definite plan now to marry Polly Barfod and to homestead in Minnesota—he's traveling with Georgie to make some money to do that. At last, we see a real endgame.
Then there were the last loose ends. For instance, Aunt Cleo decided to stay permanently, proclaiming she craved adventure. She said moving from New York State to the frontier of Wisconsin certainly fit the bill, explaining that people in New York didn't know what a "Wisconsin" was. Ma acquiesced on the condition that she take Grandfather Bolte's room (the biggest in the house). (21.43)
Here's another definite plan. It's solid, as opposed to the amorphous dreams we've seen through most of the novel. Things are happening; bedrooms are getting assigned. Perhaps this is the difference between a plan and a dream: Plans take solid form and start things happening, while dreams only drift around.
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.
Feather by feather, she had made her way. (23.36-37)
At the end of the novel, it looks like dreams are coming to fruition. Billy is married and homesteading in Minnesota, Georgie is working in the store, and Agatha is studying at the University of Wisconsin, against all the naysayers who said she'd never do it.
I reached out to stop her because I thought she'd get hurt, but Agatha was already beyond my grasp. Wild pigeons are as big as crows. They fly fast and with much strength. They'll knock you off your feet and cause all sorts of damage.
Agatha, though, seemed to feel no fear. A current of pigeons flew low in the street before veering up over the roof of our store. Agatha ran toward this winged river, stopping short of collision by mere inches. Then she crouched down and edged underneath it. (2.17-18)
Wow. We like pigeons as much as the average person—because how much does the average person like pigeons, anyway?—but this seems to be taking it to a whole new level. You have to really love pigeons to want to stand under a flock of them, even with an umbrella, because those aren't raindrops falling on your head.
"The wise old man bowed and then rushed out of his lodge to tell the people. When he returned, the white pigeon was gone, except for one white feather that rested in the middle of the floor. The old man picked it up and studied it. As he did so, he saw another feather near a window ledge. He walked to that feather and picked it up, and saw a feather just outside. And so the wise old man walked from one feather to the next right out of his village. Feather by feather he picked out his path." (3.31)
Trying to guess the plans of wild pigeons is folly. The direction they go is their own business. Likewise, it's near impossible to know where they'll roost for the night, let alone build a nesting. Their movements defy theorizing and deducing (though fools persist). Pigeons come and go as they please. (6.1)
Hmm. It seems to us that trying to guess the plans of a certain determined older sister is also folly. Again we'd like to suggest you check out the "Symbols" section—we've got a bit to say about how the pigeons represent Agatha over there, and you just might find it relevant to this passage.
As usual, Agatha decided our direction, but I thought she went toward the river for me. She knew I liked looking at rivers anytime—winter, summer, spring, whenever. And that day near the rapids, spray froze to tree limbs and hung sharp from ledges. I put the Springfield down, found some rocks sporting five-foot icicles, and knocked the ice free. "On guard!" I yelled, holding an icicle like a sword. Agatha picked up another, and we fought, sword-fight-like, until there was nothing left but stubs. Somehow, we both ended up in the same snowbank and cackling hard. (6.15)
While Agatha's obsession with the pigeons is clear, it seems Georgie is not immune to the charms of the natural world, but her fascination lies more with the landscape and less with animals. How might these different interests demonstrate differences between the two sisters?
A person may become skilled at predicting cards, but not at foretelling nestings. There is no sure way to anticipate a pigeon's preferences in terms of place. Soon as you do, they'll nest two hundred miles away. Any pigeoner worth his salt will tell you the same. (6.94)
So there's just no telling what pigeons will do. If this is true, why do people invest so much time and effort in following them and in making plans that might not pan out? Silly humans.
The pigeons had yet to choose a place to nest, and we desperately wanted them to do so in our woods. We followed news of pigeons in the newspapers, asked the stationmaster repeatedly what he'd heard. Some rubbed their lucky rabbit foot. Others offered up plea-filled prayers. If those pigeons came back, we'd all be rich. A nesting meant weeks and weeks of barrels of pigeons to sell, and the accompanying influx of pigeoners. We in Placid would be ready to supply anything those pigeon hunters might need or want. And after the eggs hatched?There would be the babies, the acorn-fattened squabs—a delicacy for discerning big-city palates, and a moneymaker for our Placid, Wisconsin, pockets. (7.23)
There's an interesting intersection between nature and commerce here: The good people of Placid don't want the pigeons for their own sake, like Agatha, but rather for what the pigeons can bring them, which is cold, hard cash.
No one went hungry and that's a blessing to everybody. I am sure every table in our corner of Wisconsin held a pigeon pie (pigeons cooked in a broth, walnut catsup added, covered with a crust, and then baked twenty minutes). In addition, all those who kept their minds on working could make some money. (7.57)
This makes us want to try some pigeon pie. We're out of luck, though, because these particular pigeons are extinct. Probably because people ate too many pigeon pies.
I froze. My body did, anyway.
My mind, on the other hand, jumped over the moon and ran off with the spoon. It listed what it saw by every possible name. It thought the list forward: Catamount, cougar, American lion, painter, red tiger. It thought it backward: Red tiger, painter, American lion, cougar, catamount. My mind pinched the list in the middle, folded it over, and thought it again: Painter, cougar, catamount, red tiger, American lion. (9.1-2)
This is where the hunter becomes the hunted. Do you think Georgie's experience with the cougar contributes to her eventual decision to stop hunting? What evidence does the text provide for or against your position?
Agatha had not come home, so I told the air, the sky, the horizon (and, I suppose, Long Ears) what Agatha looked like when, parasol in hand, she spun under the pigeons: spring set free, a dance of heaven and earth, mankind and creation enjoying each other's company. (22.8)
Agatha spinning under those pigeons is probably the most powerful image in the novel. The central story is about Georgie's search for her sister, so why do you think the author places so much emphasis on Agatha's interest in pigeons? (Cough, "Symbols" section, cough.)
I do not even think an animal as abundant as the wild pigeons should be minus one. 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. Let me learn to spin. (24.69)
Throughout the novel, Georgie tells us that she and Agatha are very different people. Does Georgie not already know how to "spin"? Why does she conclude that she wants to be more like Agatha?
Don't misunderstand me—a funeral is a funeral. Though my sister wasn't in that pine box, a body lay in it sure enough. Remember, I told myself many times during the reverend's eulogy, and then as people started shoveling dirt into the hole, that coffined body down there is dead. That's a d at the beginning and a d at the end. There's no forward or backward from "dead," and no breath either—"dead" stops a person cold. It does not make that body your sister, but it is sad, sad news. (1.4)
The funny thing is, we think Georgie is just in denial, but she's right: The body isn't Agatha's—it's Darlene Garrow's. Darlene's story turns out to be every bit as tragic as Georgie asserts. Why does Georgie need to remind herself here that no matter who's in the coffin, death is serious business?
My sister would never die and then lie there. It made no sense. (1.34)
This sounds like straight-up denial to us since people die and lie there all the time, no matter who they are.
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 say no such thing. (4.3)
Yep, more denial, except that it turns out that Georgie is right and everyone else is wrong. Do we have any indication before Agatha's letter that she might not be dead? Is everyone else too quick to jump to conclusions, or do those conclusions make sense?
I'd like to point out that this is a sight short of what the place of someone's death should look like. People are supposed to die at home. They're supposed to have time to tell their last wishes. They're supposed to be able to pray, to repent for their sins, and to commend their soul to God. And the family? We're supposed to be able to gather round the deathbed, hear those final words, watch the dying breathe their last, and witness their countenance. So given all this, I do not think the presence of a big oak tree was asking too much. (12.4)
Sounds like anger to us. Georgie is moving right on through the stages of grief. She's upset that Agatha's body was found in a "nowhere place," without even a tree to mark the spot. Nothing happened the way it was supposed to. That's kind of the thing about death, though—it doesn't care a lick for plans or preferences. Otherwise Grandfather Bolte would never have died while Georgie's off looking for Agatha.
The body should be Agatha. It would be strange if the body weren't Agatha. Why wouldn't the body be Agatha?
Agatha was—very likely, for the most part, probably, almost certainly, yes, surely—dead. That was a d at the beginning and a d at the end. No forward or backward. No breath either. (12.38-39)
It looks like Georgie is finally moving toward acceptance of her sister's death. She sees now how all the evidence piles up in favor of the body being Agatha's.
There's no forward or backward from dead, and no breath either. My own thoughts. Earlier. About someone else—a someone else who turned out to be my sister.
And look at all that had happened as a result of Agatha's death. Wouldn't it be the same for the Garrows? If Mr. Garrow died (shot dead by me), there'd be a useful woman without a husband. There'd be no father for at least three children. Maybe Mr. Garrow was lawless. Maybe he did not deserve life. But Agatha was right: Mr. Garrow's living or dying could not be my decision. Why should my bullet be the one that punched his soul from his body and sent it barreling toward some eternal destination? (17.92-93)
Georgie has always admired and looked up to Agatha, and here she seems to finally embrace some of Agatha's ideas about the right to take life. Why does Georgie ultimately decide she cannot kill either Mr. Garrow or Bowler Hat, even though they are threatening both her and Billy's lives?
I had a hard time understanding how God could distinguish one Georgie Burkhardt from the myriads of thirteen-year-old girls with braided hair, brown eyes, and plain faces. If I had been sure that death was only a candle blown out, an endless oblivion as my body broke down and soaked into the earth, I would have found that a comfort. But now I was here—in this meadow with a gun, Billy tied up and hurting, and two bad men in our camp, both armed. In this situation, I found out that deep down I wondered if there might be a heaven and a hell and a capital-G someone waiting for me.
Spare me and we'll talk. Please don't let me die. (17.94-95)
Death becomes much more immediate for Georgie in this scene. Most people in her society seem to find the idea of an afterlife comforting, but Georgie is more comforted by the idea of oblivion. Understandably, she really hopes not to find out what waits after life in this moment.
But Billy was dying, for heaven's sake. Dying. There is a night-and-day difference between "dying" and "dead." (18.58)
We'd say that the key difference between dying and dead is that, in the first scenario, the person is still alive, so there's still hope and the potential to fix things. Feel free to disagree with us, though.
According to Mr. Olmstead, Grandfather Bolte fell in front of several customers. His heart gave out, Doc Wilkie said. He died instantaneously.
They waited to hold the funeral as long as they could. (20.10-11)
Georgie and her grandfather are very close. How do her experiences trying to prove that Agatha is alive actually help her to accept Grandfather Bolte's death?
It's too true that some survivors never got a chance to think of rebuilding their lives. These people breathed their last in temporary beds. We dug them graves at Mount Zion Cemetery, put their names (if they'd been able to tell them) on markers, and paid them the respects we were able.
Every once in a while, I rode Long Ears up to the cemetery and laid flowers on those graves. I tried to remember each person's particulars (a walk, a smile, the way they clung to a photograph). I spoke the names I knew.
"You are not in nowhere," I told the dead. (24.61-63)
Georgie seems to be greatly affected by the experience of hosting both the living and the dead victims of the lake fires, but the fires aren't really related to the rest of the story. So what function do the fires serve in the novel?
Ten days after telling the story of the white pigeon, my sister, Agatha, ran off. The date was Thursday, May 25. If the pigeons left with a great clapping sound, my sister slipped off with no sound at all. (3.71)
Why is it important for Georgie to know how much time passed between the story of the white pigeon and Agatha's disappearance? Why does she relate the pigeons' disappearance to her sister's?
On the sixth day—Tuesday, May 30—Sheriff McCabe pursued those pigeoners. He ended up in Dog Hollow, Wisconsin. One week later, on Tuesday, June 6, Sheriff McCabe returned to Placid with a body. (3.81)
Georgie seems to be obsessed with getting the dates of events exactly right. One way of understanding this is as part of her general desire to maintain control—she likes to pin things down, be they dates or her sister's future.
In 1871, I experienced the pigeons on three distinct occasions. The first time was in February, when I saw a small, easily frightened group. I spotted them once. Then they were gone. In March, I saw pigeons a second time. This time they were the mighty cloud that Agatha spun underneath. These pigeons also left. And then there was the third time: in April, the pigeons returned and nested in our woods, not five miles west of Placid, Wisconsin. (6.4)
Okay, so Georgie is pretty on top of things to be able to recall so specifically when she saw pigeons in 1871. Time, then, is also an indicator of what close attention she pays to the world around her.
It's funny how months of memories can flash through a person's head in moments. How many minutes has it taken me to tell you? Five minutes? Ten? But for me, I stood upright in that pigeoner camp and did all of that remembering in under a minute. (7.68)
Yeah, time is weird like that. This is the first time we see Georgie slip out of her insistence on getting the dates exactly right and reveal that her perception of time is slipping. What does this say about her internal state?
As Billy continued his reminiscing, I began counting days, working out the time line of events. I started with the kiss—a fist in the air, a whoop, a whistle. I saw the kiss on a Thursday, the first week of May. I went to see Mr. Olmstead the next day, on Friday. (10.48)
Time is something Georgie doesn't seem to waste, anyway—she didn't sit on that information for long. And can we just say that two days isn't a very long time line? Not to knock Georgie's mental organizational skills or anything.
Agatha gave me the silent treatment for a week. The next Monday night, May 15, the nesting broke and Agatha told me the story of the old man and the white pigeon. Ten days after that, she ran off with the pigeoners. That was Thursday, May 25. Now it was sixteen days since she'd run off, and here I was a runaway too. I'd run off with Billy McCabe in order to search for her. (10.77)
Oh, Georgie, the constant counting. Why? Why the constant counting of time? Is counting actually a theme of the book? What else does Georgie count?
In addition, I was beginning to understand how the past can seem more alive than the present. I thought of Agatha all the time. (11.38)
All this reminiscing and time line creation mean that Georgie really is beginning to spend a lot of time in the past as it exists in her own head. Do we see any consequences of this? Is she starting to lose her mind?
I began a countdown in my head. Four months ago (February), Billy had proposed marriage to Agatha. Three months ago (March), the pigeons had migrated over Placid, and Agatha had spun underneath them. Two months ago (April) Mr. Olmstead and Agatha had courted, and the pigeons had nested. One month ago (May), Agatha had kissed Billy, and the nesting had broken, along with Agatha's ties to Mr. Olmstead. Agatha had been angry with me, but I'd honestly thought—and I hesitate to admit this—that it was all over. Life would return to the way it had been previously. Agatha would have no other choice but to run the store with me. So only one month ago, I'd felt relieved. (16.17)
So now it's a countdown and not a time line. We have to admit, a lot has happened in four months. And now Georgie stands at ground zero, her sister gone and her world unraveling.
Seemed like I'd lived two lifetimes already. My first thirteen years took an uneventful forever, but this second lifetime? Why, it took all of three days: Billy and I had left on a Saturday night. I'd met a cougar on Sunday. I'd been in Dog Hollow on Monday. And today was Tuesday. On Tuesday, I'd been to the nowhere place and Garrow Farm, made a marriage proposal, and found money in a cave. Would this Tuesday never end? (16.19)
Georgie does something interesting with time here: She bends it to suit her purposes. She has two lifetimes, one with Agatha, and one agonizing one without her.
I desperately wanted to go somewhere from before: before counterfeiters' caves; before nowhere places; before cougars; before a boxed body that weighed less than two cats. I hadn't appreciated before when I'd been there. But now before was where I wanted to be, before was where I wanted to live. (17.19)
Ah, and now we arrive at what may be the reason for this obsession with time. Georgie is trying to go back to a place where she felt relieved, happy, and secure. She feels none of those things now, and it's a big problem, so now Georgie just wants to go back, but she can't. The best she can do is think back.