Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review of Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Where Things Come Back 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.

(Summary from GoodReads)

A couple of weeks before ALA award season, I noticed all of these positive reviews of Where Things Come Back and started to wonder if we might see it win some awards, so I ordered myself a copy and let it sit on my shelves for a bit.  I finally picked it up in May after I knew for sure that I’d be attending ALA and seeing Corey Whaley receive his Printz award.  Where Things Come Back is a quirky, satisfying story that surprised me with its depth in plotting and atmosphere.

It’s hard to know what to expect going into Where Things Come Back.  The reappearance of a woodpecker doesn’t seem like a topic that a lot of teens would invest a lot of interest in.  Whaley, however, makes it clear why this element of the story matters, and he does so partially by drawing an incredibly rich setting.  I understood why Cullen disliked his town and their obsession with the bird.

Whaley’s debut is particularly well-plotted.  There are two stories in this novel: Cullen’s story, and that of a missionary in Africa.  The two tie together in an ending that’s both unexpected and brilliant.

As much as I enjoyed Where Things Come Back, I didn’t fall as head over heels in love with it as I expected to, and I think the one thing that held me back was Cullen’s character. Don’t get me wrong—Cullen is a nicely developed character, and he felt like the type of teen you would find in Lily, Arkansas.  However, some of the bands and whatnot that he was into just aren’t my thing.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but he struck me as the type of character I’d only wave at in passing if I knew him in real life, not someone I’d be close friends with.

My minor complaint aside, I thought Where Things Come Back was a fantastic read.  Whaley’s debut was not only fast-paced but of high literary quality, and that combination can sometimes be tough to find.  Where Things Come Back is highly deserving of the accolades it’s received and I look forward to seeing what Whaley gives us next.

Disclosure: I purchased a copy of this book.

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