Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. New York: Atheneum, 2011.
Where Things Come Back is set in the small town of Lily, Arkansas, which is like “living in the land that time forgot” (9). Lily is a place where people become stuck; most residents do not leave, and those who do usually return. The novel begins forebodingly with the protagonist, Cullen Witter, identifying the body of his cousin Oslo, who has died of a drug overdose. This scene segues quickly into a deeper understanding of Cullen, who is intelligent, cynical, and wants to be a writer; he also idolizes his brother Gabriel, who “is perhaps the most interesting person [he’s] ever known” (8), relies on his best friend Lucas, who is unlike him but “who was not in the habit of making others feel anything but comforted” (13), and in love with “Lily’s own black widow” Ava Taylor” (6). In between chapters of Cullen’s life are chapters about Benton Sage and his failed time as a missionary in Ethiopia and his eventual suicide in college, at which point his roommate Cabot Searcy endeavors to find the meaning of life. The chapters about Benton and Cabot appear disjointed from the main narrative, until, finally, in the end, the two stories merge. Furthermore, in the midst of the summer before Cullen’s senior year, John Barling supposedly spots the extinct Lazarus woodpecker, which prompts media coverage, and Lily turns itself into a tourist attraction. Around the same time, Cullen’s brother disappears, traumatizing Cullen, his family, and Lucas, who may as well be part of the family. Publisher’s Weekly states, “the maelstrom of media attention lavished on the woodpecker offers an element of the absurd, especially when juxtaposed against the mystery of Gabriel’s disappearance” (55). Whaley explores the ways in which individuals and communities handle loss and notoriety; the novel is darkly humorous, somber, and allows for the possibility of hope at the conclusion.
In Literature for Today’s Young Adults, Nilsen states, “an important aspect of [characterization] is that the emotions being explored are important to young people… [a] long-lasting book treats experiences that are psychologically important to young people” (29). Whaley delves into the psyches of various young adults’ – Cullen, whose brother has disappeared and family falls apart; Lucas, whose older brother died in a car wreck; Benton, who can never live up to his father’s expectations; Cabot, who becomes obsessed with the meaning of life after his roommate’s suicide; Ada, whose lovers die; Alma, who engages in and retreats from an unsettling relationship. Young adults are living in the real world, and they have experienced or know someone who has experienced the same suffering and tragedies explored in the novel. According to VOYA, Whaley “has managed to capture his characters’ feelings of loss and despair with both compassion and empathy. The plot is extremely well thought out and encompasses the tangle of teenage relationships, friendships, and life experiences using humor and thoughtful language… the main protagonist, Cullen, is well-developed and convincing” (196). For example, Whaley demonstrates the humor of first-times; at sixteen, Cullen and Laura went down to the river, and “once [their] clothes were back on and [they] were back in Laura’s car, [Cullen] began to laugh,” and not understanding, Laura begins crying (86). Cullen explains, “Laura, I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing at the fact that we just went through all of that to lay beside each other naked in the mud for an hour and then go home” (87). Whaley aptly illustrates the awkwardness of teen love, as well as the misunderstood perceptions of those involved. He underscores the humor by sending Laura’s brother to defend her honor, but who drives Cullen home, laughing about how his sister overreacts. On the other hand, Cullen’s grief is palpable when he states that he was "trying to figure out why [he] said and did the things [he] said and did. Trying to understand why [he] cried ten minutes after Lucas told [him] Ada was at Russell’s but never shed a tear when [his] cousin dropped dead. Wondering why [he] had written nearly ninety titles, but not one single book. Questioning why [he] couldn’t do a damn thing to bring [his[ brother back, no matter how often [he] sat and tried to think of ways to do so (154)." The range of teen emotions and states of mind are well portrayed in Where Things Come Back. Teens constantly question themselves and evaluate their lives, and Cullen embodies those actions perfectly.
This novel embraces secrecy, surprises, and tension; however, it is not particularly fast-paced, which I believe is a drawback for young adult readers. One review on Goodreads states, “this book started out so great. I was seventeen when I saw my first dead body. For me, it just didn’t sustain that initial pull. The format flip-flops between two stories, culminating in their inevitable collision” (n.p.). This novel is not popular on my campus, and I think the Goodreads review encapsulates why. The stories of Cullen are more engaging that those of Benton and Cabot, so the interjecting chapters slow the pace. The novel is also more intellectual, than action-packed, and various Biblical allusions may be unfamiliar to readers. However, the pace does pick up toward the end of the novel, when the two stories intersect, and the reader learns what happened to Gabriel. In addition, Nilsen states that young adult books are basically optimistic; Publishers Weekly states that “Whaley gradually brings the story’s many threads together in a disturbing, heartbreaking finale that retains a touch of hope (55),” and School Library Journal declares the “ending is worth the wait” (110). However, I’m not convinced. The last line of the novel is “Book Title #89: Where Things Come Back,” which implies that Cullen is the “author” of the novel, and at the beginning of the novel, when discussing zombies with Gabriel, Cullen states that he “had no intention of ever letting him die in any book” (25). In conjunction with Cullen’s vivid daydreams, it is more conceivable that Gabriel never really does return to Lily. The novel became a way for Cullen to save his brother; however, young adults have the option of believing in an optimistic ending.
In the end, Whaley wrote Where Things Come Back with a high level of sophistication, which explains why it won the Printz Award, which is based entirely on literary merit. In the last chapter of the novel, based on discussions with his doctor, Cullen gives a philosophical monologue on the meaning of life:
"Life, [Dr. Webb], says doesn’t have to be so bad all the time. We don’t have to be so anxious about everything. We can just be. We can get up, anticipate that the day will probably have a few good moments and a few bad ones, and then just deal with it. Take it all in and deal as best we can… I’ll tell you now that I still don’t know the meaning of [my life]… But I’ll tell you the meaning of all this. The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it. The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead. To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption. To warn you of psychics and zombies and ghosts of your lost brother. To warn you of Ada Taylor and her sympathy and mothers who wake you up with vacuums. To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help but never do” (227).
Life is what you make it; there will always be positive and negative experiences, but you have to learn to keep going. We cannot save ourselves from our lives and paths, but the novel warns us about becoming too pre-occupied or obsessed with ideas and the meaning of life. When given too much thought, the world can become overwhelming and end in disaster. Yet, everyone will choose to live their life in their own way.
Alexander, Karen. "Where Things Come Back." School Library Journal 57.7 (2011): 110. MAS Ultra - School Edition. Web. 23 June 2014.
Kwoomac. "Community Reviews." Rev. of Where Things Come Back. n. pag. Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 22 June 2014. <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8563789-where-things-come-back>.
McFadden, Amanda. "Where Things Come Back." Voice Of Youth Advocates 34.2 (2011): 196. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 23 June 2014.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, James Blasingame, Kenneth L. Donelson, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. New York: Pearson, 2013. Print.
"Where Things Come Back." Publishers Weekly 258.15 (2011): 55. Literary Reference Center. Web. 23 June 2014.