Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. Atheneum, 2011. 228p. Grades 9-12. Realistic Fiction. (2012 Printz Award).
In the tiny Arkansas town of Lily, seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter deals with the disappearance of his brother Gabriel, the suspected appearance of the rare Lazarus woodpecker, and the ins and outs of trying to figure out his place in the world. Cullen’s narrative is interwoven with the story of Cabot Searcy, a young man fascinated with the Coptic Bible’s Book of Enoch and its message for the world, and their two stories come together in an unexpected and dramatic fashion. Filled with mystery, humor, sorrow, and hope, this novel examines the existential crises of two very different young men and leaves the reader to ponder her own answers to those questions.
Thoughts- This book blew me away with its masterful voice, attention to detail, quirky characters, and intricate structure. At the sentence level, the writing is complex and mature, but (at least during Cullen’s narration) it retains that essential teenage voice; the reader truly believes that Cullen is a seventeen-year-old boy, not just an author pretending to be one. The chapters concerned with Benton Sage and Cabot Searcy demonstrate a different voice, almost Biblical in its tone and diction, that dovetails well with the focus those chapters place on the Book of Enoch.
For me, Whaley’s attention to detail and what that detail contributes to characterization really made this book stand out to me. The paragraph where Cullen describes his best friend Lucas by saying,
“This is what I knew about Lucas Cader that most people didn’t: He wasn’t as happy as he looked. When he wasn’t in the hallways at school, he didn’t have that toothpaste-commercial smile plastered all over him, and he sure as hell didn’t have that hopeful, the-world-is-an-amazing-place-so-let’s-get-out-there-and-love-life glimmer in his eyes either. What he had were watery eyes in the bathroom and a look of boredom and confusion when he thought no one was looking. And just before he would go to sleep at night, he would close his eyes tighter than I’ve ever seen and whisper prayers after crossing his chest. When he was done, he would stare at the ceiling until finally dozing off,” (30-31)
really exemplifies this aspect of the novel. Not only do you learn so much about who Lucas is and who he projects himself to be through this detailed description, but you learn about the narrator Cullen as well—how closely he observes people, how well he knows Lucas, and how much he analyzes the people around him.
The intricate, interwoven structure of the narrative in Where Things Come Back was, in my mind, both one of its great strengths and one of its most debatable features. I admired how seamlessly Whaley switched back and forth between the two stories of Cullen and Cabot as well as how they converged at the end of the book; however, I can see were this would be a problem for some readers who prefer a more straight-forward narrative style. I thought the structure made the book a kind of puzzle that I just couldn’t wait to figure out—I had to get to the end to see how all the pieces went together—and I think it is very well done. I do think this unique structure combined with the Biblical allusions make the readership for this book smaller and perhaps more specific. It would take a mature, sophisticated teen reader to want to tackle not just the questions raised by Cullen and Cabot but also the complexity of the book itself and the mordant humor found throughout. I would definitely recommend Where Things Come Back to readers looking for a story with real substance and memorable characters.