You asked for it, and you have been heard! When we posted our initial list oh so long ago, you clamored for this title! And then you asked for it again when Karyn posted her comparison of the PW, SLJ, and Kirkus best lists. And now here it is.
Only here I am, and I’m still mulling over exactly what I think of it. Like Imaginary Girls, it’s a book that, for me, would absolutely require a reread for committee purposes. I spent so much time worrying over Gabriel and restraining myself from reading the last page that reviews promised me would answer all my questions that, well, I would need another read to really digest it properly. It’s a novel with a lot of threads, and I’d be taking anther look at it to make sure that I really appreciated all of those threads…if I were actually serving on Printz. For our purposes here, and in the interest of getting through that Contendas list, well, I’ll give you what I’ve got.
For those of you who haven’t read the other reviews or the book itself, here’s a brief summary: Cullen Witter is a 17 year old living in Lily, AR. He’s sarcastic and generally suspicious, but genuinely loves his younger brother, Gabriel. When Gabriel goes missing and the rest of the town becomes obsessed with finding a woodpecker long thought to be extinct, Cullen’s cynicism seems justified. Alternating chapters tell the story of Benton Sage, a religious missionary turned college student, and the many lives he unknowingly touches.
What stands out about this book isn’t the language, although Cullen’s first person narration keeps what could be an overburdened narrative feeling mostly light and sometimes funny. (“My cynicism had been known, from time to time, to get me into accidental trouble.”) The Benton Sage/Cabot Searcy chapters are linguistically stripped down but widen the thematic scope of the novel.
And it’s the complicated, weighty themes that are memorable here, and the way they connect to each other and play off each other that are sticking with me. Cullen spends a lot of time fending off zombies in his head but of course the Lazarus bird and the Lazarus story are zombie stories of their own. The novel plays with so many questions of faith — of the meaning of life, the idea of destiny, the many kinds of redemption, the ways that our lives touch other lives — that it feels epic.
The plot’s structure, too, carefully mirrors one of its major themes: that connections between people can be unexpected and lead to unforeseen consequences. One of the major rewards on first read is figuring out how the two sides of the story (the Cullen/Lily/Lazarus side and the Benton/Cabot/religious side) all come together.
Where Things Come Back takes place in a small town in the south. Cullen and Lucas spend a lot of time talking about getting out — what it means, what it will take, what it will be like to leave. The town-wide obsession with the Lazarus woodpecker is just one element that brings some quirky fun to the read. The woodpecker haircuts, the Lazarus burger, the countless interviews with bird watcher John Barling are all totally absurd and totally believable. This is a book with a lot of personality.
Whaley does a fantastic job, too, showing the effect that Gabriel’s disappearance has on the Whitter family. It’s extremely emotional and really effective and is a nice counterpoint to the quirky oddball town-wide personality of Lily.
This book reminded me of a lot of others, although it was always uniquely itself. In the way that Cullen calls everyone an ass-hat — totally Holden’s “phony.” And the small-town life and interconnectedness of all things: so like Gilbert Grape.
But on my first read, I had some issues.
I needed more resolution for a lot more of the characters. I felt like Cabot, Alma, Ada and Russell all had stories that didn’t so much end as just disappear. The novel ties things up thematically really well — quite elegantly, in fact. But some of the minor characters really seemed to be left dangling.
Related: the pacing felt a little off. Everything pushes through to that last page, but it feels a little rushed, a little jammed in there. It made Cullen’s doctor’s advice (“We don’t have to be so anxious about everything. We can just be…Take it all in and deal as best we can.”) feel a little superficial.
Cabot’s change from roommate Cabot to obsessed with the Book of Enoch Cabot was really sudden and, on first read, felt a little arbitrary. Maybe on a second read I’d notice some details or conversations that would help smooth that transition? He was just so methodical and responsible, boxing up Benton’s things. I have trouble believing just how much he changed there.
So for these reasons, on this first read-through, I would not put this one forth as a prediction. But the comments are open and I’d love to hear what you guys have to say!
Pub details: Simon and Schuster May 2011. Reviewed a library copy.