Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .
In the summer before Cullen’s senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone’s eating “Lazarus burgers.” But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.
While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.
Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It’s about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.
It wasn’t difficult to decide to read this book since, “Where Things Come Back” was the recipient of the William C. Morris Debut Award and the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. The National Book Foundation also named John Corey Whaley a 2011 5Under35 author. The book has received other awards and recognition so it was with great anticipation that I selected it and began reading it. It did not disappoint.
Cullen Witter is your typical 17 year old, who is bored by his life in the small town Lily, Arkansas. The only two people who keep him from losing it, are his 15 year old brother Gabriel and his best friend Lucas Cader. When Lily is suddenly thrust into the national spotlight due to the possible discovery of an unusual species of woodpecker, it creates excitement for most in the town, except the three boys, they do not get caught up in the excitement. Sadly, in the midst of all of this, Gabriel suddenly disappears. His disappearance forces Cullen to change some things about his life and he is forced to keep things together for his family.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, GA, 18 year old Benton Sage, is sent from his small church to Ethiopia as a missionary. Benton believes that in Ethiopia he would be able to truly exert his faith. However, the missionary work proves to be far different from what he thought and it shakes his idealistic desire to make a difference in the world. Benton’s story includes a section that explains the story from the Book of Enoch (a book of the Bible generally not accepted by mainstream denominations) about Angels and Nephilim that are the basis of so many other YA novels. However, in this story they are the source of one man’s faith and another man’s downfall.
The genius of this book is that as the story unravels and you realize how each of the characters’ lives are all connected you can only feel amazement and acknowledge the fact that John Corey Whaley is truly a magnificent writer. Don’t take my word for it, read the book, you won’t regret it.
“Life, he says, doesn’t have to be so bad all the time. We don’t have to be anxious about everything. We can just be. We can get up, anticipate that the day will probably have a few good moments and a few bad ones, and then just deal with it. Take it all in and deal as best we can.”
“Cullen, people can’t give up on other people yet. We all get a second chance, you know? We get to start over like Noah after the flood. No matter how evil man gets, he always gets a second chance one way or another”.
“Being seventeen and bored in a small town, I like to pretend sometimes that I’m a pessimist. This is the way it is and nothing can sway me from that. Life sucks most of the time. Everything is bullshit. High school sucks. You go to school, work for fifty years, then you die. Only I can’t seem to keep that up for too long before my natural urge to idealize goes into effect. I can’t seem to be a pessimist long enough to overlook the possibility of things being overwhelmingly good.