Study Guide

One Came Home Themes

  • Family

    When a family member goes missing or dies, it affects everyone in the family, and Georgie's family in One Came Home has experienced both, from the mystery of what happened to Pa in Colorado to the mystery of what happened to Agatha.

    Georgie's journey to find out what happened to Agatha is really an attempt to keep her family together and to heighten her own sense of security. Georgie wants to stay home, near Ma and Grandfather Bolte, and she wants Agatha to want that, too, so much so that she disapproves of Agatha's relationship with Billy until it's over, and then sabotages Agatha's relationship with Mr. Olmstead. Her quest to prove Agatha is alive is part of an ongoing attempt to keep her family together, exactly as it is—and part of her journey is accepting that families change.

    Questions About Family

    1. Which family member is Georgie closest to? Why do you think this is?
    2. Are there moments when Georgie is willfully blind to what is happening in her family or when she genuinely doesn't understand what's going on with another character?
    3. Overall, does Georgie feel supported or thwarted by her family in terms of her goals and dreams? What effect has Pa's disappearance had on other members of the family?

    Chew on This

    Georgie's refusal to accept Agatha's death is a projection of her feelings about her father's disappearance.

    Of all her family members, Georgie is closest to Grandfather Bolte.

  • Violence

    What's a Western without some good old-fashioned violence, right? Answer: Probably not a Western. In One Came Home, we start out with a violent death that leads Georgie out on the trail, where she encounters violence from nature, herself, and other characters. Georgie's search for her sister leads Billy and her into a shootout with counterfeiters, in which Georgie earns quite a reputation as a thirteen-year-old hoyden/devil/sharpshooter.

    This book has the kind of violence, though, in which the good guys (and girls) always pull through: Georgie's sister turns out to be alive, and against all odds, Georgie wins her fight with the counterfeiters. Phew.

    Questions About Violence

    1. How is the violence in One Came Home similar to or different from the violence in other Westerns you've encountered?
    2. Why does everyone assume Georgie has been beaten, when in fact she fell on her face in a fit of grief for Agatha? She is telling the truth about falling, so why do people think she's lying?
    3. What is the relationship between accidental and intentional violence in One Came Home? What is the relationship between violence amongst humans and nature and violence solely between humans?

    Chew on This

    Georgie's violent encounter with the counterfeiters, in which she faces her own mortality, finally leads her to accept Agatha's death.

    In One Came Home, many intentional acts of violence begin with chance encounters.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Like peanut butter and jelly or Sonny and Cher, guilt and blame just seem to go together, and that's never more true than when the sister whose engagement you just broke up winds up dead. This whole guilty conscience thing is interesting in One Came Home: Georgie knows she did wrong by telling Mr. Olmstead about Billy and Agatha's kiss, and she even admits it many times… all while trying to find a way to absolve herself.

    In the end, though, Billy and Mr. Olmstead both admit that they, too, have a part in Agatha's disappearance—though perhaps not quite as great a part as Agatha herself does.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Who would you say is most to blame for Agatha's disappearance?
    2. Does Georgie seem genuinely remorseful about tattling to Mr. Olmstead? Did she feel that way before Agatha disappeared?
    3. Should readers see Billy's confession coming? Are there any indications that he feels guilty before he tells us he tricked Georgie?
    4. Is Agatha to blame for any of this? How would you respond if you received the letter Georgie's family gets at the end?

    Chew on This

    Billy, Mr. Olmstead, and Grandfather Bolte are as much to blame for Agatha's disappearance as Georgie is.

    Georgie deserves Agatha's disappearance after meddling in her sister's business.

  • Strength and Skill

    If there's one thing Georgie has, it's confidence in her abilities, specifically when those abilities involve shooting and selling. We hear a million times what a good shot she is, and about half a million times what a good salesperson she is. Usually she's the one telling us, but sometimes others, like Billy and Grandfather Bolte, chime in.

    Georgie latches on to both of these skills as real parts of her identity in, which is why what happens at the end of One Came Home is interesting: Georgie totally gives up her shooting in favor of running the store. In a sense, she gives up half of who she is in favor of the other half.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Which seems to be more important to Georgie, shooting or running the store?
    2. Does Georgie appreciate the strengths and skills of others, even when they conflict with her own?
    3. How does Georgie demonstrate these skills in the novel?
    4. To what extent are Georgie's skills part of who she is as a character?

    Chew on This

    Georgie's skills in shooting and selling are major parts of her relationship with Grandfather Bolte.

    Georgie's rejection of shooting at the end is evidence of her newfound maturity.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Ah, dreams. Everyone's got one, which is why posters with rainbows, kittens, and an inspirational quote about dreams on them exist in the first place. Duh.

    In One Came Home, we see a lot of tension between Agatha's dreams, hopes, and plans for herself, and other people's dreams, hopes, and plans for her. In fact, this conflict is what leads her to run away—from Georgie, from Grandfather Bolte, and from Billy McCabe. She finally realizes the only person who can make her dreams come true is herself, but as we find in the course of the novel, making those dreams come true comes at a price.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How do the dreams, hopes, and plans of Georgie, Agatha, and Billy intertwine to help form the plot?
    2. Do any characters have any impossible dreams—hopes we know just won't come true?
    3. What is the relationship in the novel between a dream, a hope, and a plan?
    4. If Agatha's dreams come true, does that mean Georgie's can't? What about the other way around?

    Chew on This

    Georgie and Agatha are both so determined to achieve their dreams that they often ignore the feelings and desires of other characters.

    Georgie's dream of running the store with her sister and Agatha's dream of going to college and leaving Placid are fundamentally incompatible.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Pigeons. Pigeons, pigeons, pigeons. It makes us think of this scene from Forrest Gump, except instead of shrimp, we're talking about pigeons. The interaction of people and pigeons forms the thematic and symbolic structure for One Came Home. People exploit pigeons—the way they exploit each other—and they also hope for pigeons, kill pigeons, eat pigeons, admire pigeons, and tell stories about pigeons. Pigeons are a big deal, and they're the main way we learn about each character: for instance, Agatha studies them and Georgie hunts them. Think on that.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What does each character's position on pigeons tell us about that character?
    2. A bird is the main symbol of nature. How might the book be different if another animal were in this role like, say, a mule or a cougar, for example? What is the significance of a bird? 
    3. How can we track the growth of Georgie's character through her interactions with and feelings about pigeons?
    4. How are the other natural events of 1871—the drought and the fires—symbolically or thematically connected to the pigeon nesting?

    Chew on This

    The pigeon nesting is profitable, but it also causes destruction of the forests around Placid; in this way, it is a symbol of the tension between life and death in the book.

    Georgie's feelings about the natural world and her place in it change significantly over the course of the novel.

  • Mortality

    It just makes sense that death, called here by its fancier name, mortality, would be a big deal in a book where most of the plot involves the supposed death of the main character's sister and said main character's attempt to come to terms with that by essentially going on a road trip, 19th-century style. However, Agatha's alleged death isn't the only place this theme comes up in One Came Home.

    Georgie starts out by contemplating the permanence of death, which leads her to question her position on hunting and killing animals. And this leads her to question her right to end any life, even if she thinks someone "deserves" it. Eventually she concludes that she doesn't want to be part of ending life, perhaps because she has dealt with Agatha's disappearance, Grandfather Bolte's death, and the deaths of many fire victims. It's a lot, and whether she sticks with it long term or not, we totally get why she wants a break.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. As a reader, did you believe Agatha was dead from the beginning? Did you ever doubt that she was dead and that this would be a story about Georgie's acceptance of her sister's death?
    2. What effect, if any, does the revelation that Agatha is in fact alive have on Georgie's eventual conclusions about death?
    3. Just when we think the story's over, victims of the fires appear in Placid. How do the experiences Georgie has while searching for Agatha affect her feelings about the death all around her?
    4. Agatha's alleged death at the beginning of the novel is mirrored by Grandfather Bolte's actual death at the end. How are Georgie's feelings about these deaths similar and different?

    Chew on This

    While Georgie's trip to Dog Hollow appears to be a means for her to accept Agatha's death, in fact it is a journey on which she learns to accept death itself.

    The false death of Agatha at the beginning of the novel prepares Georgie to deal with the body count at the end.

  • Time

    If there's one thing Georgie likes to dwell on more than how her sister isn't dead in One Came Home, it's how long she's known her sister isn't dead. No joke, Georgie pauses a lot to let us know just how long it's been since certain events occurred, and how long it seems like it's been. In other words, she addresses both the actual and the perceived nature of time. Georgie connects time to human constructs like months, but it's also connected to natural processes like the pigeon nesting. All this consideration of time lends a sense of urgency to Georgie's journey. The clock is always ticking.

    Questions About Time

    1. What role does time play in Agatha's disappearance?
    2. Why do you think Georgie constantly feels the need to talk about when things happened? For example, how many months and days have passed since certain events?
    3. Why is it so important that the novel be set specifically in 1871? Could it have been set in any other year?

    Chew on This

    Georgie's obsession with how long ago things happened derives from her desire to go back and change events.

    Life events of great significance change Georgie's perception of time.