Cullen Witter is 17 and lives in Lily, Arkansas, a small Southern town where nothing exciting ever happens. The only thing on Cullen’s mind is escape, from his town and from the people in it. But then Cullen has to identify the body of his cousin Oslo (who died of a drug overdose) at the morgue, and things are seemingly set into motion, especially when on top of the grief his family is now dealing with, some ass-hat ornithologist claims he’s seen the long thought to be extinct Lazarus woodpecker. When completely out of the blue Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel goes missing, Cullen finds it surprising and frustrating that the entire town of Lily seems to think that some stupid bird is more important than looking for his kid brother. In a secondary plotline, we meet the young Benton Sage (BEEN-TONE SOG!), who’s a missionary in Ethiopia, and whose story brings in a religious aspect into this slender novel (228 pages). I’m sure this may prove to be a challenge for some readers (Angels and the Book of Enoch, say what?), but it’s worth keeping an open mind because the two plotlines (they are told alternately) somehow merge in the most surprising of ways. Even though you know they will somehow be linked, once they finally do, it’s such a gasping experience!
However, besides reading a very cleverly plotted novel, what probably led to Where Things Come Back winning the Printz (deservedly so!) is the outstanding use of voice in this novel. Cullen’s voice in particular is something else alright: alternating between 1st and 3rd person narration, you feel close to Cullen and removed from him at the same time. Shifting between the two narrative points of view (within 1 plotline) makes you question what you read and you never quite know what to believe (which is majorly important for the ending!). Cullen is one messed up kid, alright – who wouldn’t be if you had to identify your cousin who OD’d, your brother has gone missing, you have girlfriend issues and the town is only thinking about some stupid ass-hat bird that probably doesn’t even exist anyway! The third person POV intensifies this feeling even more with Cullen often pretending to fight zombies and going off in his own world, dreams and nightmares are nothing if not escape… Also: talking to/about a certain Dr Webb? Who is this guy and why is Cullen talking to him like some ass-hat Holden Caulfield I ask you? I mean, Cullen seems to have lost so much already that it’s hard to imagine a place where things come back for him. But that’s exactly what this book is also about: not just about things that got lost (birds, brothers, cousins), but about the potential of things coming back, and like John Corey Whaley says on his website: second chances.
There is so much going on in this little book (the symbolism!), but what really shines through is what an incredibly original spin John Corey Whaley gives the great genre of the coming-of-age story, which is – as some may argue – the true YA literature as it traces the experiences of a teen growing up into adulthood, with things being taken from them and things coming back to them, and deciding which things to hold on to. If this is what John Corey Whaley can do in his debut, then I’m more than a little bit excited to find out what will be next!