Winner of the 2012 Printz Award | Winner of the 2012 Morris Debut Award
Written by John Corey Whaley
17-year-old Cullen Witter is kicking around his small, unremarkable town of Lily, Arkansas during the summer, trying to get dates with girls, working at a convenience store, and in general trying to figure out what to do with his life. After an unremarkable date with an older girl who has moved back to town and is still technically married to another man, Cullen discovers that his quirky younger brother (and best friend) Gabriel has inexplicably gone missing. The search for Gabriel goes on for weeks, but meanwhile the town of Lily is consumed with a different search; a professor has come to town claiming he will find the long lost Lazarus Woodpecker, the largest species of woodpecker thought to have been extinct for 60+ years, in the woods around Lily. In an attempt to cash in commercially the town goes bonkers for woodpeckers, selling everything from Lazarus hamburgers (“it’s actually just the Number 3 without cheese”) to red-died faux-hawk woodpecker haircuts for young boys. Through this nonsense Cullen must come to terms with what has happened to his brother, not knowing if he is alive or dead. Meanwhile, alternating chapters tell the story of a young man named Benton who has been sent by his church in Atlanta to be a missionary in Ethiopia. The way these two stories come together is surprising and convoluted, but worth following through.
This book is a worthy entry in the literary, post-Catcher in the Rye strand of young adult literature. It strikes me as particularly reminiscent of John Green, with its clever and cynical male narrator, and quasi-hipster and intellectual references (for example Sufjan Stevens’ lyrics play a role in the book, as well as an apocryphal ancient scripture the Book of Enoch.) The start of the book is a little slow, but things really pick up a few chapters in. The writing is smart without being inaccessible, and the dual plot construction is ambitious and rather successful, especially for a debut novel. There is frank discussion of sex and teenage characters are sexually active, which makes me recommend this only for mature high school readers. Vulgar language appears not infrequently, but it does not overpower the dialogue.
I’d highly recommend this book to readers who like quirky or literary realistic fiction with clever and cynical male narrators and interesting cultural references, such as Paper Towns, Going Bovine, and of course Catcher in the Rye. That’s obviously not every reader, but for a certain reader this is pure gold. This is the kind of book that YA award committees love to give awards to, and it has already taken home several.
Where Things Come Back
Written by John Corey Whaley
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 3, 2011
ISBN: 9781442413337 (hardcover)