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An ALA-ALSC Notable Children's Book
Winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Novel
“An adventure, a mystery, and a love song to the natural world. . . . Run out and read it. Right now.”—Newbery Medalist Karen Cushman
In the town of Placid, Wisconsin, in 1871, Georgie Burkhardt is known for two things: her uncanny aim with a rifle and her habit of speaking her mind plainly.
But when Georgie blurts out something she shouldn't, her older sister Agatha flees, running off with a pack of "pigeoners" trailing the passenger pigeon migration. And when the sheriff returns to town with an unidentifiable body—wearing Agatha's blue-green ball gown—everyone assumes the worst. Except Georgie. Refusing to believe the facts that are laid down (and coffined) before her, Georgie sets out on a journey to find her sister. She will track every last clue and shred of evidence to bring Agatha home. Yet even with resolute determination and her trusty Springfield single-shot, Georgie is not prepared for what she faces on the western frontier.
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So it comes to this, I remember thinking on Wednesday, June 7, 1871. The date sticks in my mind because it was the day of my sister’s first funeral and I knew it wasn’t her lastwhich is why I left. That’s the long and short of it.
But surely, you’d rather hear the long than the short.
At the moment of the above thought, I stood wedged between Ma and Grandfather Bolte. Ma seemed a statue in black except for the movement of her thumb and forefinger over a scrap of blue-green fabric. Grandfather Bolte sighed, adjusting his hands on the hat he held in front of his belly. Seeing the minister on the other side of that six-foot hole reminded me that I was “sister of the deceased”a fancy title for someone who stands quietly, holds her tongue, and maintains a mournful attitude. But I could barely stay still. I was not in this situation by choice, and wore a borrowed black dress to boot. The collar clamped to my neck and the tension of the muslin between my shoulder blades suggested that, if I let my arms fall to my sides, the dress would rip somewhere in the proximity of my armpits. So there I was, sticking a finger down my collar, holding my arms out from my sides, and the meaner part of me thinking about walking outsurely, enough is enough. But Grandfather Bolte saved me from strangulation. He unbuttoned the top button on that collar, and from somewhere deep in my depths came a patience I didn’t know I possessed. I stayed.
Don’t misunderstand mea 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 minister’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.
The way I figured it, I’d survive this funeral, and then I was free to go.
My sister, Agatha Burkhardt, had run off with pigeonerstwo men and one woman in a forlorn-looking buckboard. Sheriff McCabe went after those pigeon hunters, following them all the way to Dog Hollow. One week later he came back with a body.
Ma said I was old enough to face facts. So I went with Ma and Grandfather Bolte out to the McCabe stables to “identify.”
You could smell the body from outside the building.
Inside, dust hung in a twist of sunlight, an old mare stamped in a far stall, and a pine box lay on a roughly hewn table. Grandfather Bolte walked straight up to that box and slid the lid off.
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). But I am glad I looked. I know what I saw. I also know what I didn’t see.
Grandfather Bolte put his hand to his mouth and turned away. Ma stood there, taking it all in, pausing for what seemed like months. Then she asked Sheriff McCabe for his knife. When he didn’t give it to her, she laid her eyes on him. They stared at each other for a long while, and then he pulled it from its sheath.
It was a big knifethe kind of knife with a sharp, upturned point. Ma took it, reached into that pine box, and sawed a hunk of something off.
I inhaled sharply, not knowing what she was doing.
Then her hands reappeared: the right held the knife, and the left, a fistful of blue-green cloth. I saw pleats. Ma stepped back.
“You were tracking the pigeoners when you found this?” Ma jabbed the air with the knife.
We knew he was, so the jerk of the knife panicked me a little. Grandfather Bolte tried to reach for the knife, but Sheriff McCabe held him back.
“I was on their trail,” the sheriff said.
“She still traveling with them?”
“Pretty sure she was.”
“She was shot? In the face?” The blade jerked upward.
The sheriff nodded ever so slightly. “I am so sorry, Dora.” He laid out the syllables of her name with the most tender care.
Sometimes I forget how long they’ve known each other.
Ma’s chest rose in a long breath. Then she opened up her left hand and nodded at the fabric as it unrolled. “These are my stitches,” she said. The knife dropped from her hand, planting itself in the earthen floor. “It’s Agatha. We’ll bury her tomorrow.”
The first minutes of the ride home I kept silent, but the words “bury her” compelled me to speak. I leaned over Ma, who sat in the middle of the buckboard, to speak directly to Grandfather Bolte. “There wasn’t enough of the body to be surealtogether that body couldn’t have weighed more than two cats. You’ve got to go. You’ll find her. You should have gone in the first place.”
It was bold of me to speak so, but it was commonly known that no one tracked better than my grandfather. (Sheriff McCabe would tell you straight out that he was better at keeping the peace than tracking.) Grandfather Bolte hadn’t gone because, with the pigeoners in town, our general store had been chaotic and we were hard-pressed for help. At that point in time, Grandfather Bolte had already spent a couple of days away from the store, and if truth be told, he never thought Agatha’s life was at risk. Therefore, when the sheriff offered to chase her, Grandfather Bolte took him up on it.
That was a mistake in need of rectification.
I reached over Ma, who’d visibly stiffened, to grab hold of Grandfather Bolte’s forearm. “You have to go find her. Please, Grandfather, please.”
When I didn’t release his forearm, Grandfather Bolte put his hand on top of mine and squeezed.
“You are thirteen years. You’ll hold your tongue.”
He pointed at me. “We are blessed to have a body at all. Now, we are done talking about this. You shut your mouth or you walk home.”
Then he looked forward and flicked the reins.
I sat back in a state of shock. How could Grandfather Bolte be satisfied with what we’d seen in that pine box? I understood about Ma. When Pa left in search of Colorado gold, he wrote two letters. These came in the first six months. After that? No word at all. That was ten years ago. Pa had to be dead, but were we certain? No. Ma never did put on mourning black. It was only in the last year that Ma had removed her wedding band. So for Ma to have parts of a body wrapped in a blue-green cloth containing her stitches? Well, Ma would think Agatha was dead.
But Grandfather Bolte knew better. Had he forgotten how he taught Agatha to walk silently through a forest carpeted with leaves? Had he lost all recollection of how Agatha could read a hillside for the caves it contained? My sister climbed trees as easily as a raccoon. And there was no one better at sneaking off. I thought of all those nights Agatha slipped out of our bedroom. One morning I awoke beside Agatha and saw a fragment of dried leaf in her hair, and that was how I found out she’d been gone.
My sister would never die and then lie there. It made no sense.
I jumped off the wagon. Going that fast, I tumbled.
“Georgie!” Ma said.
But Grandfather Bolte didn’t halt the horses, and Ma didn’t tell him to stop.
When I got home, the planning for my sister’s funeral was well under way.
It doesn’t take long to bury a body when there’s need. At ten o’clock the next day, the body was in the hole, and Grandfather Bolte, Ma, and I stood listening to a eulogy by Minister Leland. No headstonethat’d come later. And despite the short notice, there was no lack of mournersover fifty, I’d guess. But then again, there’s nothing like a sheriff returning to town with a body to spread news of a coming funeral.
Graveside, I noted that Sheriff McCabe came early and stood next to Ma. The other sight worth seeing was Billy McCabe and Mr. Benjamin Olmsteadthe two rivals for Agatha’s affectionstanding so near to one another. Only the four younger McCabe boys separated them. How could they be so civil after all that had happened? Mr. Olmstead was my sister’s most recent attachment. Billy McCabe was Agatha’s intended: the one everyone thought Agatha would marry.
I remembered the day I’d seen the kiss. That kiss had led to the end of everything. I was glancing out the window in Grandfather Bolte’s study as I worked on the daily accounts when I saw it. At the time, my sister was keeping company with Mr. Olmstead, so I gaped as Billy’s hand reached for Agatha’s chin, guiding her close enough so that his lips touched hers. They drew apart. Agatha said something. She squeezed Billy’s forearm, and then she left the sight line of my window. Billy smiled for a moment. Then he put a fist in the air and whooped. And as he left, he whistled. Everything about the way Billy McCabe movedthe way he stuck his hands in his pockets, the little dance step in his feettold me he’d gained something significant. He’d won either half the world or Agatha’s heart. Since Agatha didn’t have half the world to give, she’d given her heart.
I told Mr. Olmstead, thinking he had a right to know.
At the funeral, I looked at each suitor, comparing the two of them. Mr. Olmstead owned the Olmstead Hotel. He had thirty-five years of living behind him and silk lapels crisp enough to cut butter. But Billy McCabe was considered the good-looking one. I granted Billy this: he stood half a head taller than Mr. Olmstead. As he’d aged into his nineteen years, his chest and arms had thickened so much I couldn’t call him Beanstalk anymore, and his hair had changed from corn-silk white to the color of wet sand. But those characteristics didn’t seem enough to warrant the way his grin caused chaos with every idiot girl I’d ever met.
Today tears ran down Billy’s face. What I wanted to know was this: Did he grieve because my sister was dead? Or did he grieve because something he’d been promised could no longer occur? He had walked off whistling.
Polly Barfod, a girl with thick blond braids wrapped around her head, kept her place beside Billy. She was determined to marry him, then. People described her as “sturdy.” I stared at her ankles, noted the way the laces stretched tight between shoe leather that did not touch, and thought of the way tree trunks come straight up out of the ground.
But who cared? This entire funeral was lunacy! Within a period of two weeks, Agatha had run off, a body was found, and a funeral was held. Does this strike you as reasonable? I refused to believe it.
I tried to calm myself by focusing my eyes and thoughts on the Wisconsin River, a ribbon of which was visible beyond Minister Leland. I noted the location of all that I knew to be there: the sandstone that lined the banks and piled yellow, tan, and red, like giant pancake stacks; the cave that summer visitors carved their names into; the teapot islands with pine-tree lids; and the spires that balanced rocks at their points.
Minister Leland paused from his sermonizing to read a psalm:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Psalm 19. My sister’s favorite. Reading it was going one too far, given the circumstances. To the psalm’s meter, I kicked a trough in the dirt.
Finally, Minister Leland stopped his eulogy, men returned hats to their heads, and the shoveling began. One by one, the mourners wrapped their hands around the shovel’s handle, stuck it into dirt, and dropped the dirt into that six-foot hole. Then they passed the shovel back and came to give their condolences to the family.
Grandfather Bolte spoke with the men, patted a back, and even, at times, laughed. The women headed for Ma. Ma nodded, took a hand. I slid out of arm’s reach and listened to that dirt falling into the hole. At first, the rocks had skidded on top of hard wood, but now all I heard was hollow thumps.
When I finally looked up, I saw Ma’s left thumb and forefinger circling on that scrap of blue-green fabric: circle, circle, stop to talk, circle, circle, circle, stop to talk, circle . . .
It reminded me of that day. . . .
Agatha spinning. I couldn’t help but think it, seeing Ma’s thumb and forefinger working in circles on that blue-green scrap.
Hold it, I thought. I did not want to think about thatnot here, not now. In front of all these people? I felt their funeral eyes on me, waiting to see how I took my grief. I looked again beyond Minister Leland at the winding Wisconsin River below and hoped for distraction.
But all that sky between bluff and river did not help. How empty the Psalm 19 firmament appeared! Only a couple of weeks earlier, someone standing in this spot would have seen flocks of wild pigeons flashing through the blue sky like schools of fish. Those pigeons were gone. They’d left their nesting for goodthe nesting had brokeright before Agatha ran off.
Suddenly I was remembering that day whether I wanted to or not.
That was the day the world darkened under wild pigeons. It was the end of March. Mrs. Finister had rushed into our store all out of breath.
“Pigeons,” she said to Ma, throwing herself against the counter. “They’re coming. I never saw so many.”
Ma raced out back to gather laundry hanging on the line. Agatha bolted upstairs. Mrs. Finister stepped toward the plate glass window. I pushed past Mrs. Finister out onto the front porch.
People from Wisconsin know wild pigeons. Pigeons come every year, but because 1871 was an odd-numbered year, we had expected greater numbers: pigeons adore black-oak acorns, and black oaks drop acorns every other year. So to put it plainly, Mrs. Finister’s agitation must have meant she’d seen something unusual.
What People are Saying About This
Starred Review, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February 2013:
“With its historical backdrop, enjoyable narrative, and endearing heroine, this will appeal both to fans of Philbrick’s The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg and Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.”
Starred Review, School Library Journal, January 2013:
“Timberlake seamlessly integrates information about two significant events that occurred in Wisconsin in 1871… Georgie’s physical and emotional odyssey that occurs between those two events will linger in readers’ minds.”
Starred Review, The Horn Book, January/February 2013:
“…it’s Georgie’s voice that really brings the story to life, with its original, folksy turns of phrase and self-deprecating humor that make it as entertaining to read as a Christopher Paul Curtis novel.”
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2012:
“Georgie's story will capture readers' imaginations with the very first sentences and then hold them hostage until the final page is turned.”