17-year-old Cullen Witter is having a painful summer. His dull, boring life in Lily, Arkansas has been upended by a series of events: the death of his cousin, the alleged sighting of an extinct woodpecker species that’s catapulted the town into the national spotlight and the sudden, unexplained disappearance of his beloved brother, Gabriel. Benton Sage has just arrived in Ethiopia for missionary work. He is confused, lonely and unhappy. He eventually asks to return home to Georgia where he enrolls in college. These parallel stories alternate between Cullen’s first person narrative and the third person telling of Benton’s story, an oddly compelling mix that keeps the reader wondering how these stories can possibly be linked–and when they finally intersect, it is original, unnerving and unexpected.
This melancholy slice of small town life is enlivened by well-drawn characters, quirky comic moments and symbolism that fairly smacks you in the face. A great pick for book club or to recommend to high school teachers for class discussion. There is implied sex (no graphic descriptions), but it’s a minor plot point. Although the book’s cover may make it a bit of a hard sell (too whimsical? old fashioned? not really about the bird?), fans of Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road or Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You will enjoy the complexity.
John Corey Whaley has been having a very good year. Not only did his first book win the 2012 Michael Printz award for outstanding Young Adult fiction, he also received the William C. Morris award for debut authors. Where Things Come Back begs to be read slowly and savored for its excellent writing, so while it might not be what you’d consider a typical “summer” read, it’s a great “summer’s ending and now I have to think about school” book. Read it and feel smarter!