Thursday, June 28, 2012
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
Release Date: May 3, 2011
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?
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. (courtesy of Goodreads)
I finished Where Things Come Back several weeks ago. I'm still not sure what I think of it. I definitely see why it won the Printz award. Does that mean I liked it? I'm not sure. You know the saying that there's a fine line between genius and madness? In books, there's a fine line between genius and really weird. I can't decide on which side of the line Where Things Come Back falls.
Where Things Come Back is one of those books where not all that much seemingly happens. That's not accurate, since there is a strong plot: Cullen's brother disappears and a rare woodpecker is discovered just outside of town. But the book is so wordy and cerebral that the plot feels like a second thought.
Cullen is one of those stereotypical teenage boys who spends most of his time thinking and pontificating on the world around him. Think of Holden Caulfield, Augustus Waters of The Fault In Our Stars, or even Ethan Wate of the Caster Chronicles series. He fancies himself a writer and is always coming up with odd titles for a to-be-written novel or describing his surroundings in witty quips. Part of me loves him for his sensitivity, his intelligence, and his drive to be better than his narrow minded town. Another part of me simply rolls my eyes at Cullen's over-the-top pretentiousness and his unrealistic insights.
Like many literary novels, Where Things Come Back is not a page turner. To be fully appreciated, it should be read slowly, giving the reader time to ponder the underlying context and the amusing brilliance of Cullen's thoughts (whether Cullen's thoughts are brilliant is debatable, as noted). It is a short novel so you can probably get through it in a day or two.
I was ready to dismiss Where Things Come Back as a hoity toity novel until the end when everything came together. The book switches back and forth between the perspectives of Cullen, an African missionary, a college student, and more. This makes absolutely no sense at first, because the characters are entirely unconnected. But at the end, the puzzle pieces magically fit together. This is the only reason I think Where Things Come Back may be worthy of the Printz. It reminded me of how the stories in Jellicoe Road eventually meshed (although it lacks the emotional punch of my beloved Jellicoe Road). I'd recommend reading Where Things Come Back simply for the surprise at the journey's end.