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Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
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Where Things Come Back (original 2011; edition 2011)

by John Corey Whaley

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5835516,933 (3.79)16
Member:EdGoldberg
Title:Where Things Come Back
Authors:John Corey Whaley
Info:Atheneum Books for Young Readers (2011), Hardcover, 240 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****1/2
Tags:Cullen, Gabriel, Benton, Lazarus woodpecker, Lucas, Cabot

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Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (2011)

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Cullen Witter's summer before his Senior year promises to be as boring as ever in small Arkansas. He works in a convenience store, has pretty normal parents, and a younger brother, Gabriel, who's so close to him, that people think they're twins.

Everything changes when a visiting ornithologist spots the long-extinct Lazarus Woodpecker, Cullen's cousin overdoses and, worst of all, his beloved brother disappears.

Cullen's story is cross-cut with the story of Benton Sage, a troubled missionary. Although totally dissimilar, the two stories eventually come together with satisfactory twists and turns.

The voice in this book is incredible: at turns, funny, sad, insightful. It is such a beautifully-wrought look at grief (Cullen for his brother) that it made this reader cry.

Teens may have trouble bringing the two stories together (Cullen's is more compelling than Benton's) but those who persevere will be rewarded with a great Coming of Age tale. ( )
  mjspear | Sep 30, 2014 |
I loved John Corey Whaley's new book, _Noggin_, and after I finished it, I realized I needed to go back and read _Where Things Come Back_, his first novel, which had been on my "to read" list for several years.

As the novel opens, Cullen Witter is in the local morgue, identifying the body of his older cousin, Oslo, who's died of an overdose. To Cullen, Oslo's death is more evidence of the dead-end nature of his small Arkansas town, which no one seems capable of leaving or transcending.

Then two things happen that shake up both Cullen's family and Lily, Arkansas, that summer: first, Cullen's younger brother Gabriel vanishes without a trace, and then an ornithological zealot named John Barling shows up, saying he's had a vision that the long-extinct Lord God bird--the ivory-billed woodpecker--has come back to life and is living on the river near Lily. News media and birdwatchers pour into town, searching for a bird that probably doesn't exist, while the search for the very real Gabriel leads nowhere.

Whaley's novel is incredibly well structured, and the many plot lines and characters that seem so disparate at the outset eventually come together in a convincing and unexpected way. While I didn't find this book as humorous or as touching, ultimately, as _Noggin_, I really enjoyed it. Whaley has a gift for portraying the interior life of his teenage-boy characters, and especially their oddball friendships; in _Where Things Come Back_, we see how such friendships can go horribly wrong, in one scenario, and also how they can be a lifeline, in the case of the friendship between Cullen and his friend Lucas. ( )
  rvhatha | Sep 14, 2014 |
I had some trouble with the pacing in certain parts of this book, but I thought it had a great plot. I gasped at least ten times while reading it; everything fit together surprisingly well while still conveying emotion and using realistic characters. ( )
  marielreads | Jun 20, 2014 |
I don't use star ratings, so please read my review!

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

“In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.

Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together through masterful plotting and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.”

Okay, first of all, you should know that this review has spoilers. I can’t think of any way to talk about the book in any depth without talking about certain twists that take place, so you have been warned. HERE BE SPOILERS.

To those of you still with us after that dire warning, you should know that I’m not entirely sure if I liked this book or not. I think I get what Whaley was trying to accomplish with this narrative, and I applaud him for working in as many layers of story as he did. However, I also think there were some flaws in his execution that kept me from really enjoying the book.

One of the things that I think worked well was the inclusion of the different points of view for different characters. The chapters alternate between Cullen, who gives us the first-person view of the plot, and Benton and Cabot, whose stories are narrated in third person. Even in Cullen’s chapters, though, there are moments of third-person point of view, which I eventually came to think of as dissociative episodes. More on that later.

The Lazarus woodpecker, the bird that everyone is so excited about, seems to be both a symbol of hope and a symbol of delusion. Initially, the town embraces the idea that this supposedly extinct bird has been found alive, and they look forward to the benefits that the town will reap in tourism and national attention. By the end of the book, it has been proven that the woodpecker is not, after all, still around, and the town is now in the grip of crushing disappointment. In fact, Cullen characterizes the Lazarus woodpecker as a false hope in the final chapter.

Unfortunately, being so firm in stating that the woodpecker never was real kind of ruins what Whaley tries to do on the last page, which is to introduce ambiguity as to whether or not Cullen’s brother Gabriel comes back home. I say this because I think the author was trying to have his readers cling to that little bit of hope—and indeed, in reading other reviews of this book, many readers did assume that Gabriel made it home safely. The thing is that there are many clues to point to the fact that he doesn’t, and that detracts from the ending. The entire book seems to run on the theme of second chances—the woodpecker popping up and Gabriel coming home being the two big ones—but then the author blatantly says that there are none.

On top of this, there is a dangling plotline—or, if not dangling, one that really doesn’t fit into the rest of the story. Cullen’s cousin Oslo dies of an overdose at the start of the book, and there really doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to be there, or to have died, or to even be mentioned. It does cause Oslo’s mother, Cullen’s aunt, to descend into terrible grieving; however, she doesn’t factor into the plot much either. In fact, given that the novel is supposed to feature the mystery around Gabriel’s disappearance, throwing another family tragedy into the mix seems clunky.

Finally, readers are going to get more than eighty percent of the way through this book before they find out that the two timelines being followed are not concurrent at all. The Benton/Cabot timeline begins a full year before Cullen’s, and it was really jarring to see the point where the stories intersect, because it is completely different from what you’ve been led to believe. I’m all for twists in stories, but they need to be set up properly so that when they’re brought to light, the reader doesn’t have a “WTF?” moment and go searching back through the book to see if they missed something important. That’s pretty much what I did, and I was annoyed to realize that the moment of intersection came out of the clear blue sky.

So, here’s what I think the author was doing: he was writing a book in which the first person narrator (Cullen) is a man who is looking back at a particular summer in his childhood. This older Cullen is in therapy, as borne out by his frequent mentions of a Dr. Webb whom he speaks with about things. Cullen is chronicling not just the summer that his brother vanished, but also the summer when he himself had a psychotic break. Cullen often speaks in third person during his chapters, sometimes spinning out elaborate fantasy sequences, and sometimes describing “real life” events that he’s part of. His final episode is on the final page, and it consists of him fantasizing that his brother has returned, and doing so in such a powerful way that he reacts to the phantoms he sees in his head.

Is this a lot to read into a short young adult novel? Maybe. But the other choice is to say that Whaley put in mentions of a doctor and dissociative episodes that have no bearing on the story. This is possible as well. Personally, my brain tries to make sense of things, and this is the supplemental tale that I told myself after finishing the book. I have no clue if I’m correct or not. I’m not entirely sure that it matters.

Did I like this book? I’m not sure. Did I appreciate the attempt at this particular brand of storytelling? Yes. Do I think that the author knocked it out of the park? No. Do I think that it was worth the read? Yes. Make of all of that what you will. I suspect this one will simmer in my thoughts for a while, regardless of any opinion I might have on the matter.

This review originally appeared on Owlcat Mountain on June 2, 2014.
  owlcat_mountain | Jun 18, 2014 |
I was not as blown away as everyone else by this book, but I did appreciate it's literary merit. Loved the ending, which redeemed the whole thing for me though. ( )
  Tahleen | Feb 16, 2014 |
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For Anita Cooper, teacher and friend
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I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body.
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Seventeen-year-old Cullen's summer in Lily, Arkansas, is marked by his cousin's death by overdose, an alleged spotting of a woodpecker thought to be extinct, failed romances, and his younger brother's sudden disappearance.

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