I finally got around to reading this year’s Printz Award winner, and I believe it’s an instant classic, much deserving of the many accolades it has received. Among the best novels I’ve read in the past year, regardless of target age or genre, Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley, tells the tale of a teen in small town Arkansas, the unexpected impact on his life of a disillusioned missionary he never actually meets, and the rediscovery of a woodpecker long thought to be extinct. Whaley’s narrator, Cullen Witter, balances humor and cynicism in the spirit of Holden Caulfield, and the book’s illumination of the bizarre, and sometimes horrific interconnectedness of modern life calls to mind the absurd fascinations of Kurt Vonnegut.
I hesitate to give away too much of the plot, but the action of the book centers around Cullen Witter and his younger brother, Gabriel—a thoughtful pair staring down a future stuck in the dead end town of Lily, Arkansas. Reporters and sightseers descend upon Lily when the extinct Lazarus Woodpecker is spotted in the bayous outside of town, and Cullen and his crew are chagrined to see how their community is transformed by the attention: what used to be the “Number 3” at the town fast food restaurant becomes the Lazarus Burger, and Cullen’s own hairdresser mom invents the Woodpecker haircut, a combination of Mohawk and red hair dye designed to match the markings of the famous bird. Meanwhile, another story, revealed in alternating chapters, chronicles the experiences of a young man on a missionary trip to Ethiopia and his subsequent obsession with the Book of Enoch, an obscure ancient text detailing the Archangel Gabriel’s mission from God to eradicate renegade angels on Earth in the days just prior to Noah and the Flood. As the novel progresses, these narrative threads intertwine in increasingly mysterious and suspenseful ways, leading to a reading experience that, if you’re like me, accelerates on the force of sheer curiosity the further you get into the tale.
The book is also a must-read for any who may have seen and enjoyed the 2009 documentary Ghost Bird, which recounts the real-life “rediscovery” of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker near Brinkley, Arkansas. The movie is in turn a must-see for any who enjoyed Where Things Come Back, as the similarities between the film and book—even down to the Lazarus haircut—are striking, and viewing Ghost Bird is at times tantamount to watching brief interviews with residents of the fictional Lily, Arkansas. Additionally, fans of Sufjan Stevens will find much of interest in the book, as his music is referred to throughout, and provides a kind of thematic reflection of the personality of one of his biggest fans, the book’s protagonist, Gabriel Witter. – Dan Coleman, Collection Development