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.
Several months ago, when the Simon & Schuster Summer catalog came out, I circled the title of this book and dog-eared its page because it intrigued me. When I found out I would be on a YA Debut Author Panel at ALA with John Corey Whaley, I made sure to get a copy so I could read it before I met him in person. I started it on my way to New Orleans, and during my three hour flight I didn’t speak to another person on the plane, didn’t get up to use the restroom, didn’t even eat the free snack they offered me, because from the first page, I was a goner for this story.
I have to emphasize the word story here because there are writers, and then there are storytellers. It’s hard for me to pin just what the difference is, but I can tell you this: John Corey Whaley is a true and talented storyteller--the kind that pulls you in with quietly spoken questions and truths that echo long after his story is finished.
Cullen Witter is the voice of this story, and his is an earnest one, so real I felt like I must’ve known him in high school. He’s sarcastic, but not overly so. Filled with hope, and doubt, and searching. Most of all, Cullen is searching. Not only for his brother, but for meaning and second chances—in his small town, in his relationship with his family, in the affections of a girl who breaks his heart. He’s a character full of questions, with a humble sense of reverence for the answers.
The thing I admire most about this book, though, is the way in which the different narrative threads weave their way together by the end of the story to create an ending so full of grace and wisdom I couldn't think of picking up another book for a very long time because I wanted to hang onto the feeling that Whaley left me with. His story resonates. I can't do it justice here.
Where Things Come Back is a book I know I’ll come back to. It’s one I will give my friends and family as a gift, and today, it’s one I cannot speak highly enough about. When you read it, you’ll see what I mean.
You can visit John Corey Whaley at his website.
And you can find his book at:
Don't forget to check out what the other Bookanistas are up to this week:
Elana Johnson revels in Ruby Red
LiLa Roecker is nuts for I’m Not Her
Christine Fonseca interviews picture book author Michelle McLean – with giveaway
Beth Revis reveals her reading recommendations
Veronica Rossi raves about Wildfire
Shannon Whitney Messenger swoons for Supernaturally – with giveaway
Shelli Johannes-Wells features “guestanisto” author Matt Blackstone
Carolina Valdez Miller is bedazzled by Between – with giveaway
Shana Silver wonders at The Near Witch
Stasia Ward Kehoe celebrates Selling Hope